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Book Reviews

That Time I Loved You

by Carrianne Leung

That Tiny Life

by Erin Frances Fisher

Victoria-based author Erin Frances Fisher is a writer’s writer. With imagery that would make a poet jealous, characters rich enough to sustain entire novels, and dialogue that communicates a lot in few words, Fisher constructs stories so intricate they threaten to put her less committed readers to sleep. That Tiny Life is gorgeous and slow, memorable if you can summon the will to get through it.

Fisher has an expansive vision of what a short story can contain and the wealth of research and imagination to explore that vision fully. While she prefers first-person narration, her settings and subjects range from revolutionary France to a resource-extraction outpost on Saturn’s largest moon.

In “Valley Floor,” an Old West surgeon amputates a man’s leg in the middle of the desert. The story is short enough that Fisher’s attention to detail – her inventory of the surgeon’s tools, her all-too-plausible description of “the wet rasp of sawed bone” – enriches the action without getting in its way. In longer stories, the pacing is encumbered by the author’s overabundant research. “Argentavis Magnificens,” which features two paleontologists trying to convince a headstrong oil baron to finance a dig in the Andes, has passages so dense with technical jargon they’re almost incomprehensible.

Though not much actually happens in many of these stories, the stories take place at such pivotal moments that every small development is consequential. In “The White,” the novella that rounds out the collection, a character learns that the decades he’s spent selectively breeding gyrfalcons have begotten an immaculate white bird that can barely fly. Like a lot of Fisher’s characters, he tried in vain to decouple creation from destruction – it “took him a lifetime to breed out the brain.”

The collection’s central theme is the nature of progress. Is it linear or cyclical? Is the evolution of life (individual and societal) a story of improvement or just change? To address these questions, some of Fisher’s stories need to be slow. The aptly titled “Da Capo al Fine” is a long letter written by an 18th-century craftsman recounting how he went from detailing instruments for the royal court to helping Charles-Henri Sanson, the infamous executioner of France, perfect the guillotine. As the narrator minutely describes the action mechanism of a fortepiano, one can’t help but reflect on the baroque meticulousness that diminished as the world lurched violently toward industrialization and mass production.

Fisher is better at setting a scene than setting it into motion, but this is less a failure than a matter of preference. That Tiny Life will appeal most to readers who seek complexity over action.

That Time I Loved You, the debut collection by Toronto-based Carrianne Leung (author of the novel The Wondrous Woo), features better pacing but less nuance. In 10 linked stories – all set in a seemingly idyllic 1970s subdivision in Scarborough – Leung explores what lurks “on the other side of doors, behind the friendly faces, underneath the polite chatter across the fences.” The families in these stories come from a variety of racial and class backgrounds, but they share a dissatisfaction with suburban life that surfaces when several parents kill themselves in a short span of time. June, a precocious Chinese-Canadian adolescent, narrates several of the stories; the rest are third-person narratives, each focusing on a different neighbourhood resident.

Suburban ennui, Leung’s preoccupation here, is timeless and true but also common enough that any new book-length treatment must take extraordinary measures to sustain intrigue. Leung’s writing is funny and unadorned, many of the characters are interesting, and the stories are peppered with Easter eggs for fans of late 20th-century Canadiana. The plot developments, however, are circumscribed by a paradigm that invariably sees unhealthy behaviour as the product of a predictable range of circumstances: a schoolyard bully is abused at home by his alcoholic father; a young woman pushed to marry stumbles into infidelity; the subdivision’s unofficial matriarch, a generous and eminently practical person, gets a rush from stealing useless objects.

In “Things,” a Black student is unfairly accused of cheating by his racist teacher, and a memory flashes into his mind of something his mother told him: “When you grow up … it won’t happen slowly, like it does for other kids. It will happen all at once. On that day you will change, and you will remember that day, that moment, for the rest of your life.” Nothing about this passage is unbelievable, but its interjection into the climax of the narrative reflects a heavy-handedness that plagues the entire collection.

Leung’s attention to the ways unjust socio-political realities determine people’s identities is commendable, however a lack of subtlety in her approach makes it difficult to become fully immersed in the stories. That Time I Loved You ultimately feels more like a collection of pathological case studies.