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Sweet Affliction

by Anna Leventhal

The 15 stories that make up Journey Prize nominee Anna Leventhal’s debut collection, set in contemporary and recent-past Montreal, are about people who stumble and struggle and don’t always do the right thing. Most of the stories are standalones, while a handful are very loosely linked by a recurring cast of characters spanning decades and generations. This blend enriches the collection as a whole.

Leventhal’s prose is simultaneously prickly and tender. She is also fantastically inventive with similes. Stacey, the narrator of “Gravity,” states that boys her age “have faces like half-baked buns”; in “Moving Day,” a character sits down and “the chair moans a bit, like a dreaming animal”; in “The Shirt,” someone is described as having an “accent where the consonants curve around the vowels like cupped hands”; and in “The Polar Bear at the Museum,” the teenaged narrator notices that her classmate’s Adidas “look like small spacecraft.”

As for content, the author doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter. Topics such as infidelity, terminal illness, abortion, and date rape are handled with compassion, curiosity, and even, in some cases, humour. In “Maitland,” for example, a character encounters a man who, many years before, sexually abused one of her friends at university, and decides to expose him in front of his family and friends at a Passover Seder.

In the wonderfully titled “A Goddamn Fucking Cake,” a woman lashes out at a party hostess for forgetting her cancer-stricken husband’s birthday – a gesture that ends up humiliating the sick man even further. And the short opening section of “Wellspring,” in which a character confesses her “guilty secret,” is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read this year.

Leventhal doesn’t vilify or victimize her characters – there’s an underlying recognition that we’re all fuck-ups in our own ways. Certain stories – such as “Frenching the Eagle” (narrated in the third person plural), “Glory Days” (narrated in the second person), and the short, vignette-like “The Yoga Teachers” – feel slightly out of place in this otherwise very strong collection. Sweet Affliction has the ability to make you bark with laughter, choke back sobs, and gasp in wonder, sometimes in the span of a few lines.