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The Eater of Dreams

by Kat Cameron

Half-Sisters and Other Stories

by Ryan Turner

The closing entry in Halifax writer Ryan Turner’s sophomore collection of short fiction is called “Moving.” It’s appropriate, given that the story literally begins in motion, with an opening sentence that reads, “As the train wound through the shadow of forest, Theo leaned forward to draw the attention of his grandmother.” The reader is thrust into the action in medias res with a feeling of propulsion, notwithstanding the fact that the character in question is effectively sitting still.

There is an allusive element to the opening as well: it chimes with the first line of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, which has Hazel Motes sitting “at a forward angle” on the seat of a speeding train. And any short story featuring a character known only as “grandmother” cannot help but recall O’Connor’s classic, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

The title of Turner’s story also nods in another direction: that of emotional response or reaction. In so doing, it encapsulates the twin streams of powerful fiction: the technical and affective aspects.

John Barth referred to the ideal combination of these two things as “passionate virtuosity,” and argued that this is what most readers look for in fiction most of the time. Straying too far in one direction or the other – too much technique without emotion, dollops of sentimentality devoid of linguistic precision – inevitably diminishes a fictional performance.

As evidenced by the seven entries in Half-Sisters and Other Stories, Turner has technique to spare. His writing is fluid and refined, characterized by a kind of pared-down poeticism that allows for a pleasingly elliptical presentation. This is apparent in the final lines of “Sumner Beach,” in which the protagonist comes to a kind of epiphany about his developing relationship with the daughter of his father’s new wife: “In their search, he hadn’t been sure if she’d wanted to extend what was happening between them beyond that rush of abandon. He could see now that she’d been motivated by the same false concern.”

Turner’s prose is burnished to a fine sheen, but this brilliance is carried off almost to a fault: though the sentences in the stories appear pristine and carefully – not to say fanatically – well-wrought, they are missing precisely the kind of rough edges that allow life to seep in through the cracks. It is the same kind of sensation one gets reading a story by Carol Shields – a writer who is explicitly name-checked in Turner’s collection – of viewing a beautiful diamond under glass, such that one is unable to hold it or turn it or properly admire it.

The stories in Kat Cameron’s debut collection evince the opposite issue. The Eater of Dreams is not precisely a linked collection, in the carefully novelistic manner of Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? or Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House. By contrast, Cameron provides 15 entries sorted into rough groups: one set about an opera singer in Edmonton being stalked by her ex-boyfriend; a triptych of satirical takes on the writing profession; and a series of stories about a clutch of ESL teachers in Japan.

These last pieces, which make up the concluding section of the book, include the title story, by far the longest in the collection. “The Eater of Dreams” focuses on Elaine, a woman grieving the death of her fiancé. Over seven interconnected sections, Elaine is haunted by the surprisingly loquacious ghost of British expat writer Lafcadio Hearn, whom she refers to by the twee diminutive “Laffy.”

The nickname is typical of Cameron’s approach in these stories, which is insouciant and brisk and replete with references to culture both high and low. (One story features a woman waiting in line at an SF convention to meet the actor Leonard Nimoy.) There is plenty that happens in these stories: a couple trying to flee Calgary in a snowstorm almost drive off the road; a man in another story escapes a car wreck only to shoot himself in the head with a rifle the following day; a woman abandons her friends at a debauched outdoor music festival.

But despite the engaging action and a clever interweaving of themes and subjects – including repeated appearances of the funeral hymn “Amazing Grace” and a Japanese legend concerning origami cranes – the technical aspect of the writing does not reach the same level as in Turner’s collection. These are stories that foreground emotion over linguistic legerdemain, though that is not entirely a bad thing: there is plenty of feeling in these pages, and the stories benefit from the resulting forward momentum.

If neither of these books achieves a kind of Barthian passionate virtuosity, each nevertheless features, in flashes, the best of either pole.