In her second collection of short stories, Elaine McCluskey has concocted a ragtag chorus of sometimes funny, often sad characters. The title story, about a child who has been exiled to the circus by the circumstances of her birth (and her prideful mother), demonstrates the depths McCluskey is capable of. The story is an elegant meditation on hope, happenstance, pain, love, and fate. The heroine trains as a figure skater in Russia, surrounded by entertainers, coaches, and costumers. There is even a hockey-playing bear (the eponymous Valery) and his tender-hearted trainer, who describes his animal charge as an athlete made of silk, beautiful in both his intense strength and delicacy.
The brutal and the beautiful strike an uneasy chord that reverberates throughout the book. The small New Brunswick towns depicted here are hopeless and impoverished, painfully au courant, or trapped in an imaginary past. All are laden with an overabundance of tragicomic humanity that makes each place both a heaven and a hell.
McCluskey frequently returns to the idea of escape, and the shifting narrative viewpoints from story to story – and, in a number of cases, stories within the stories – open them to multiple interpretations. In “Jess Loves Jorge,” a doomed couple is memorialized on Facebook; the competing narratives of their lives and love are crowd-sourced and hashed over again and again. “Johnny Canuck Had This to Say” is similarly preoccupied with a biased and faulty historical record, with sides taken and stories told.
In “Hank Williams Is Coming to Save Us,” McCluskey describes a newspaper editor living in a small fishing village who is overcome by the “sustenance and danger” of the ocean and the desperately superstitious, but lovingly held, mythologies of the locals. Here, as in many of the stories, the Maritime setting becomes an overwhelmingly present character, stormy and dark, at once familiar and strange.
By turns comic, pathetic, and tenderly tragic, Valery the Great is a charming collection.