We All Need to Eat is Lambda Award–winning author Alex Leslie’s third book and second collection of short fiction. Over the course of nine linked stories, she presents intense moments from the emotional and psychological development of Soma, a queer woman from Vancouver.
The strongest story, “The Person You Want to See,” is about Soma developing a weight-lifting obsession after a breakup. The plot follows a standard coming-through-grief arc; what makes it special is how intensely embodied Soma feels as a character. Her grief isn’t abstract but neither does Leslie fall into the trap of making her character defined by that grief. Soma has so clearly existed as a physical entity in the world prior to her breakup – her body acting as much more than a vehicle for exploring grief – that her pain is more visceral and sharply defined in the aftermath. This sense of embodiment, of physicality, runs through most of Leslie’s stories, but it’s most effective here. Leslie also deals expertly with how breakups work in the age of social media. Soma engaging with Facebook post-breakup is treated as significant but not special. Its significance lies in social media’s status as an ordinary part of life, not as some novel-but-troubling deviation.
At the centre of We All Need to Eat is a novella called “Who You Start with Is Who You Finish With,” which shifts back and forth between two perspectives. In the first, Soma’s Jewish grandmother, Charna, is still a young woman, newly in love with a Gentile and trying to make sense of the events around the Holocaust while holding a fracturing family together. In the second, Soma and her partner take a vacation as the fifth anniversary of Charna’s death approaches. Soma tries to hold her own relationship together while struggling with the outsized grief she still feels.
The other stories in We All Need to Eat feel confident, even bold, but “Who You Start With” feels cautious. Set alongside Leslie’s other characters, Charna is little more than a ghost, a disembodied voice, and even Soma feels less present in the novella. Leslie’s prose style is also more straightforward here; the precise, daring language that makes the other entries so alive is replaced by prose that is competent but safe. The immediacy of Charna’s and Soma’s personal tragedies is overshadowed by the need to tread lightly while considering a greater collective pain.
Leslie’s writing style is poetic. Often that word just means a writer hasn’t fully embraced what makes narrative prose interesting in its own right and is seeking to “elevate” it in some poorly defined way. But that’s not the case here. Leslie uses poetic techniques to enhance the strengths of narrative prose rather than to push it awkwardly into some other domain. Her surprising juxtapositions, strong and deftly deployed metaphors, and dynamic sentence structures create dense emotional landscapes tied to a well-developed sense of time and place. From those landscapes, a rich, subtle portrait of Soma emerges and then evolves as the stories expose more facets of her life.