Rhonda Douglas’s debut collection of short fiction contains 10 eclectic stories that employ humour, metafiction, and pathos to varying degrees of effectiveness. Douglas is at her best when writing about the tumultuous emotional lives of teenagers. In “Still Life with Book,” about a sensitive teen who tattoos his body with the poetry of John Donne, and “Welcome to the Circus, Sooky Baby,” about a young woman dealing with the untimely death of her boyfriend, Douglas expertly captures the angst and resignation of adolescence. “I’m just putting one foot in front of the other in front of the other, like I have choices,” Sooky muses, before deciding to skip out on an appointment with a grief counsellor.
Unconventional romance and bawdy humour are taken to new levels in, respectively, “Sounds of our Paleolithic Past,” about a woman who develops romantic feelings for a living Neanderthal, and “Monday Night at the Porn Emporium,” featuring a family-run brothel under threat of attack from a group of anti-porn terrorists.
The collection is bookended by two stories that employ collective narration (the first-person plural voice). The approach works in “Nous and René Lévesque” – a story filled with the hilarious use of franglais. In this story, a trio of “inseparable” adolescent girls in Newfoundland write anonymous love letters to their handsome French teacher against the backdrop of the Quebec separatist movement. However, in “Cancer Oratorio,” which focuses on a group of choir members coming to terms with the death of one of their members, the cacophony of voices comes off as babbling and jumbled, and ultimately acts as a barrier to the reader’s emotional engagement with the tragedy.
This is in direct contrast to the quietly powerful “God Explains the Collapse of the Cod Fishery,” in which the deity himself confesses to altering the laws of science in reaction to the untimely death of one of his favourite humans. “Oh, you try being perfect day after day on into infinity and see how you like it,” complains the Almighty grumpily.