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The Freedom in American Songs

by Kathleen Winter

With her new collection of short stories, Montreal-based writer Kathleen Winter (whose 2010 debut novel, Annabel, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Orange Prize, and a Governor General’s Literary Award) returns to the terrain of her 2006 collection, boYs: quirky, often humorous stories threaded with emotional depth and complexity.
Winter explores moments of crisis and change. In “Anhinga,” Claire, a middle-aged woman vacationing on Florida’s Sanibel Island, finds herself questioning her life and future; an afternoon canoe trip takes her sense of entrapment to a terrifying extreme. Similarly, the narrator of “Flyaway,” who takes in a young girl during the Second World War, ironically uncovers a sense of self as a result of her resentment of the child.

While many of the stories seem to be moving toward epiphanies, Winter holds the narratives fast, teetering on the edge of understanding, leaving both her characters and reader in a state of suspended uncertainty. When Violet Wainwright, the narrator of “Darling’s Kingdom” gets into a pickup truck at the story’s end, the narrative power comes from its lack of resolution.

“Darling’s Kingdom” also demonstrates two of the most potent aspects of Winter’s fiction: her skill with character and sense of place. Winter deftly sketches the depths of her protagonist’s complexities and contradictions: “Despite certain past adventures and odd accidents I was an innocent person in the ways of alcoholism and certain infidelities and a host of other human behaviour.” Wainwright is far more at home in her remote “gypsy caravan,” her “enchanted bog where snipe made their haunting calls that sounded like voices but were really the wind winnowing through their tail feathers as they plunged from moon to marsh.”

Winter’s language is more complex, more complicated than it initially appears: sentences linger and bloom in the reader’s mind paragraphs later. That approach, writ large, is the modus operandi for the collection as a whole. These stories, seemingly light and quirky, build to their full effect. And when they do, it is wonderful indeed.