There’s a moment in the title story of Toronto writer and CBC Radio producer Sarah Meehan Sirk’s debut collection when the eponymous husband – who has miraculously recovered from a terminal illness, thereby scuppering his artist wife’s plan to use his corpse in a forthcoming installation – and his spouse feel each other’s absence across the span of a room. “Some part of her wants to get up,” Sirk writes, “to hold him, to rock together in their untended yard, but that part thumps from behind a wall built too long ago.” It’s a beautiful image, one that sets up a motif of disconnection that echoes throughout the rest of the stories in the collection.
Surrounded at once by distance and love, the characters in Sirk’s stories are all metaphorically beating their fists against walls of one kind or another – some self-imposed, others thrown up externally and without warning. In “Ozk,” the daughter of a mathematics professor feels her mother slipping away as she pursues a brilliant discovery; in “Barbados,” a married couple struggles to connect in the face of infidelity and a looming medical diagnosis; in “Moonman,” a son reflects on his distant father after the end of the world. House fires or the apocalypse or unintentionally cruel pranks played by well-meaning friends: these are the disasters around which the stories pivot – the moments of disconnect, large and small, that set the characters adrift and searching. Like the wife in the title story, desperately trying to claim space for herself in a marriage that has mostly made room for her spouse, the characters in these pieces are hemmed in by an unbreachable kind of loneliness, even in the midst of those they love.
Sirk is a gifted stylist; her sentences are lyrical and clean and pulse with a quiet, fervent energy. The Dead Husband Project charts a world just peculiar enough to mimic the odd bends life can take, and the quiet spaces in the stories point to how the smallest of things – gaps in conversations; things that don’t get said but should – can grow and fester. Yet there are times when this focus on absence feels like too much of a conceit, the same way car accidents – which show up several times throughout the book – feel like a lazy device used to propel the narratives forward to their conclusions.
But this occasional repetition is more than offset by the tender strangeness that infuses the collection. Each story is its own delicate universe, a grouping of unfamiliar worlds built on a familiar terrain of sadness and longing. This juxtaposition is skilfully effected: in the hands of this storyteller, love in all its guises can, for a time, feel entirely new.