One of the great joys of reading a collection of short fiction is the opportunity to experience a writer at play. Characters, themes, absurdities, and moods that could become overwhelming in a novel are somehow more acceptable in stories confined to a few dozen pages. When authors drastically change structure or voice between stories, it’s as though the reader is glimpsing the writer’s imagination going in many different directions at once. It’s fun.
This sense of play, however, is largely absent from Sarah Selecky’s debut collection. Whether by design or default, the changes in narrative register from story to story are so subtle that all the entries read the same way. Though Selecky’s narrative voice is strong, she seems unwilling or unable to allow her characters to deviate from it. Consequently, the collection as a whole is slightly disappointing, though each individual story is really, really good.
The writing in This Cake Is for the Party is very descriptive – in “Watching Atlas,” one character “carries a depth of scent that is familiar, like beef gravy, but with a sharp edge” – and entire paragraphs are dedicated to setting the scene with precise detail. In “How Healthy Are You,” the simple event of dessert being served at a fundraiser is rendered complex by its intricate presentation:
A slice of warm chocolate cake with a wet, slick pudding centre is served in a wide dish dusted with icing sugar. A sliver of strawberry and two blueberries roll beside it. Their dessert forks are small and highly polished. When it is set in front of him, Bruno eyes the chocolate with longing. The candlelight makes his eyes look shiny and liquefied, and Carolyn wonders briefly if the cake has made him cry.
This level of elaboration could easily weigh the story down, rendering it overly ornate and difficult, but Selecky is adept at creating scenes that are taut and vivid. She is a wordy writer, but the words she uses are carefully chosen, and despite the verbosity, even lengthy passages are brisk and well-crafted.
Selecky explores the awful side of romantic involvements in many of her stories, with several characters straying from their partners, or doing the one thing that is most sure to hurt the person they are supposed to love. In “This Is How We Grow as Humans,” Franny is friends with Pima and Richard, until Richard leaves Pima for Franny. The story centres on an awkward meeting between the women, in which Franny struggles to come to grips with the fact that despite her engagement to Richard, she’s actually in love with both him and Pima, and Pima does her best to maintain her composure, all the while seething with anger at her former friend. Bouncing between emotionally fraught comments and banal observations, the dialogue and mood are just right, convincingly capturing the conversation between two people who know each other well but whose relationship has irrevocably severed.
In addition to adultery and sleeping with friends’ mates, alcoholism, loneliness, dead parents, and religion all feature prominently in these stories. Health and illness are also heavily represented, and Selecky manages to make being health-conscious appear negative in several of them, most notably “Go-Manchura.” Lillian is a lonely woman trying to get her friends to buy into a line of nutritional products. It quickly becomes clear, through Lillian’s humorous, overly earnest narration, that it’s more likely the wine and vodka that are improving her mood and helping her sleep than the mystery ingredient in the organic mushroom lasagna she’s eating.
The strongest story in the collection is “Paul Farenbacher’s Garage Sale,” in which Meredith helps her neighbours sell the effects of the late Paul Farenbacher, to whom Meredith had become quite close during his battle with lung cancer. It is obvious that her relationship with the elder Farenbacher was a complicated one – did she love him as a father figure? A friend? More than a friend? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Her grief is palpable in the final paragraphs, and it’s a testament to Selecky’s skill that she can so accurately depict a moment of pure emotion in such a simple but startling way.
This Cake Is for the Party may not offer a variety of styles or tones, and the subjects covered are anything but fun, but it possesses a satisfying blend of humour, angst, desperation, and warmth. Several of the stories get better with repeated readings, as the intricate layers are peeled back, revealing great characters and believable situations that resonate. With these stories, Selecky proves that her expertise is genuine, though one hopes she will explore new voices and take more risks in future work.