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The Opium Lady

by Joanne Soper-Cook

Imagine moving into a house and finding an old family photo album tucked deep in the corner of a dusty bedroom closet, flipping through the photos, and inventing intricate stories for the strangers in the pictures. Reading Newfoundland author Joanne Soper-Cook’s The Opium Lady offers such a pleasure. The book is a collection of 30-plus stories, each introduced by a black-and-white snapshot taken between 1910 and 1955. In each of these very-short stories, Soper-Cook describes the characters in the images, elaborating on their past and their future.

The snapshots are of women in cotton print house-dresses with a line full of laundry in the background, soldiers in crumpled woollen Canadian armed forces uniforms, a woman with bobbed hair sitting in the back of a 1930s pickup truck, little girls holding hands with huge bows pinned on top of their hair. Whether these photos are part of Soper-Cook’s family or if she found the pictures in a thrift store is left ambiguous. The final story, which begins with a photo taken in the 1980s or ’90s, is written in the first person and is about a woman embittered by her husband’s desertion for another woman.

Soper-Cook has a wonderful eye for the folly of human nature. Her characters are eccentric, foolish, smart, corrupt, happy, miserable, rich, poor, lonely, damaged, content, repressed, vivacious, and everything in between. The stories left me wanting to know more about these people, which is both a blessing and a curse. Although it would have been more interesting to read half as many stories for twice as long, the people who inhabit The Opium Lady stay in the memory.