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The Rule of Last Clear Chance

by Judith McCormack

Judith McCormack understands the sloshy, unpredictable rhythms of interiority. In this, her first story collection, she gives us characters with inner lives full of switchbacks, insinuations, and amendments. The characters include a veteran supermarket worker, a young woman coming to terms with a miscarriage, a pharmacist who emigrates to Havana in 1873, and a set of twins both shackled and bolstered by their childhood closeness.

Several of the stories also take the law or things lawyerly as their subjects, which allows for a more explicit exploration of a theme that runs throughout the collection: the slipperiness not only of facts and unforeseen events, but of people’s expectations of each other.

The stories are rich with bang-on physical description, unforced, natural dialogue, and the telling particulars of daily life. There is also a wonderful sensuality to many of their settings. The protagonist of the title story is a female lawyer whose uncanny sense of smell and whimsical “scent association” make the dry documents she’s deciphering seem visceral and extraordinary. And in “The Cardinal Humours,” one man’s subterranean despair and loneliness are refracted in the lively tropical lushness of his new home.

Witness to the volatility of circumstance, whether it be in the lives of distant others on the page of a law brief or the lives of lovers and close family members, these characters willfully reshape their feelings and impulses in their search for meaning. McCormack is a writer with clear-eyed compassion for her beleaguered men and women, who misunderstand, overinterpret, and read into signs incessantly. Children do not always turn out the way parents want them to, she seems to be saying, and neither do court cases, careers, or love affairs, and, try as we might, there’s not much we can do about the “lunatic event corkscrewing off the page of the script.”

The Rule of Last Clear Chance is a collection of substance, physicality, and insight – a debut to be savoured.