In their debut short-story collection, Grimsby, Ontario-born writer Sydney Warner Brooman takes us on a twisted journey into a small town where malaise will eat you alive.
The swampy landscape of The Pump is true southern Ontario small-town gothic: the lone Tim Hortons on the main strip, one restaurant (Eggs & Things), and one bar (Mr. Desperate’s). But The Pump is also plagued by flesh-eating beavers; the mayor refuses to acknowledge that the town’s water is toxic; and there’s a fatal skin disease aptly named “The Rash.” The town’s environmental woes get into everything: people’s clothes, skin, and blood.
In Brooman’s stylistically beautiful writing, turns of phrase like “moon crater sores” are haunting and reminiscent of Max Porter’s Lanny and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. The repetition of phrases in two of the stronger stories, “The Bottom” and “Grounders,” is chilling and effective, as the stories reflect on each other and on the banal cruelty of family violence, particularly from the perspectives of mothers and children.
The Pump has many moments of tenderness and humour between children; the teenaged characters in the later stories keep us from completely drowning in the misery of this place. Readers, particularly queer and trans ones, who left suffocating small towns may see their experiences reflected in the furtive meetings with sweethearts and the burdens of violent parents and oppressive Christianity.
Despite these moments of tenderness, this is a work that touches the darkest of dark places. Bloodthirsty acts, speaking beavers, and skin diseases that make people want to rip off their skin and write on it make for unnerving and compelling reading. However, there is a lack of clarity in the world-building of the collection; some of the more fantastical stories such as “Pelargonia” – where storks, here twisted harbingers of birth, loom over the lives of a couple in the lighthouse – eclipse the incredible atmosphere Brooman has crafted for the town.
As squeamish as this reviewer is, fiction such as Brooman’s that is ugly, desperate, and reflective of the violence people inflict on each other and the land they inhabit feels necessary. The Pump opens the door to a haunted world that is not easily forgettable. But proceed with caution: this collection will undoubtedly get under your skin.