Tag Archives: canlit

Review: Caught by Lisa Moore

Standard
Caught by Lisa Moore. House of Anansi, 2013. $29.95. ISBN 9780887842450. Thanks to Anansi for a review copy of this work.

Caught by Lisa Moore. House of Anansi, 2013. $29.95. ISBN 9780887842450. Thanks to House of Anansi for a review copy of this work.

Lisa Moore is approaching something like legend. After her Canada Reads win, her Commonwealth Writers’ Prize victory, and her name perennially floating on the finest longlists  — Booker, IMPAC Dublin, and Giller, to name a few — she seems unstoppable. Caught won’t do anything to slow her down.

The novel has an action movie premise — a drug runner who busts out of prison and flees from the cops to make one last score — but a psychological depth that’s profoundly moving. In this respect it’s a rare bird: a book about driven criminals and haggard policemen that defies cops-and-robbers clichés and delivers a narrative as reflective as it is rousing.

The story follows David Slaney, a Newfoundlander who slips out of a Nova Scotia prison the 14th of June 1978, on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday. He has served four years after a botched smuggling operation with his childhood friend and partner-in-crime, David Hearn, which saw them snagged off the coast of Newfoundland with two tons of weed. Now with dogs and squad cars sniffing at his heels, all he’s got is a prayer and a plan: get to Vancouver to meet Hearn, then get to Colombia to buy more marijuana.

The title, of course, hints at the end. But with a fugitive-centred book entitled Caught, Moore seems to suggest it doesn’t matter if we know the ending in advance. Patterson — the sweaty, self-doubting policeman assigned to Slaney’s case — alludes to this as he ponders death at a Mexican bullfight: “The best stories, he thought, we’ve known the end from the beginning” (272). This topples crime genre code, and is a provocation. After all, if we know what’ll happen, why read? In laying her cards on the table from the cover onward, Moore issues an invitation: find another reason to turn the page. Set aside your plot-worship and the logic of ‘What happens next?’, and get cozy with literature’s other facets. Maybe take a shine to her phenomenally crisp sentences.

Of course, some readers may be whiffing escapism, and that would be fair enough. The story has its holes, and it appears Moore cares little for penning a plot-driven book. Lyricism and well-hewn prose seem her main concerns. If you like that, you’ve got a treat in store. If you don’t, you’ve been warned. Still, the novel has a solid story, and is worth reading even if you have little patience for “literary” books.

Speaking of literary writing, here’s a sample of Moore’s seductive prose. It’s a description of Slaney’s hideout about above a Guysborough bar that “had strippers once a week and… sponsored a school basketball team” (5):

The test pattern was on the television. An Indian chief with feathered headgear, his profile of bone and forbearance. There was a bookshelf with miniature figurines of woodland animals, perhaps two hundred of them that had been collected from boxes of Red Rose tea. The figures sat on the peeling vinyl skin of the pressboard shelf as if they were climbing hills and descending into valleys in a great exodus. (27)

There’s real pleasure in reading Moore’s sentences. Her style is clear, lean, and thoughtful. Caught is a book with few commas and short paragraphs. Your eye slides down the page like maybe you’re on the run yourself. But the quick pace was surely slow in design; the words are well-chosen and rarely self-indulgent (a slurp of hot coffee should never be “an amplified susurration of scalding liquid” (62), in my opinion — but such wordiness is rare in this splendid novel).

Splendid writing aside, what Moore seems to want us to focus on is the mentality of an unrelentingly bold young man. The novel zeroes in on how Slaney sees and responds to the world, rather than the cat-and-mouse game of Newfie fugitive versus RCMP. The story is gripping in its own way, but it’s also replete with real life randomness: Slaney chatting up truck drivers, taking tea with old ladies in rooming house hideouts, eating ice cream with New Brunswick girls curious enough to pick up desperate hitchhikers on the run. It’s a meandering, organic tale.

This works well for a story that’s an exploration of unrestrained, naïve, youthful hope. Caught is about how David Slaney yearns for freedom, for movement, for adventure. It’s about his fear of ordinary, staid existence, and about the deep sadness that thrusts him into a criminal world with no happy endings. This tenor comes out in a passage toward the book’s end when Slaney has finally met his Colombians suppliers:

Slaney was offered a violin and he played it like a fiddle, jigs and reels, and then something slow and full of need that he made up as he went along…

All the need he’d felt in prison came out of the wooden instrument under his chin. All the longing, terse and barbed and broken, hung over the bonfire. The flames near the crackled black logs were blue and flicking. It seemed like the fire breathed up and sank down with the music. The ocean roared and shushed. Someone had bongo drums; someone had a tin whistle. There were a few stringed instruments made of gourds. A silver flute. Everybody playing together, improvising. Looking up into each other’s eyes so they could all know where they were going with it. Slaney leading the way, sawing gently, tapping his foot, urging them on by nodding yes and yes.

If Slaney had a reason for going on this trip in the first place, maybe it was this: so he could be on a Colombian beach playing all his sadness out under the stars, stoned out of his mind. He was there for the sense of abandon he felt. (226-227)

This passage typifies the novel’s atmosphere. It’s 314 pages of sadness and dreams and getting high and wilding out all night on a beach as the repercussions of bad choices close in from every side.

Caught is a remarkable book about a remarkable man, achingly rendered by one of our most insightful novelists. It’s a fun read that’ll make you think hard about being alive till you feel something in your bones, and it’s one you’ll remember well past the last page. With this latest effort Moore proves that, no matter the genre, she’s a writer who knows how to catch our attention.

Advertisements

Review: ‘Love and the Mess We’re In’ by Stephen Marche

Standard
Thanks to Gaspereau Press for a review copy of "Love and the Mess We're In," Stephen Marche's experimental work of concrete fiction.

Thanks to Gaspereau Press for a review copy of Stephen Marche’s experimental work of concrete fiction.

Love and the Mess We’re In is like nothing you’ve ever read. I don’t mean that as the usual figurative praise on how good a book it is, but as simple fact. This is different.

What makes this work unusual– and I don’t know what to call it if not a ‘work’ –is its application of concrete poetic techniques in fiction. The result is something quite remarkable.

We’re all familiar with concrete poetry, whether it’s early 20th-century works like Apollinaire’s Calligrams or the more recent poems we all had to read in high school English class. The idea of manipulating how words fall on the page to enhance or alter meaning is an old one.

What’s new is applying this in fiction. It’s a clever idea that produces some startlingly powerful effects.

But let’s step back and look at exactly what we’re discussing:

In case you were wondering, that’s the Buenos Aires rain running down the page as Viv, the protagonist, waits to get into Clive’s apartment so she can cheat on her crazy husband with him. And this is not an exceptional sight in Love and the Mess We’re In. The right-hand page is actually pretty tame compared to the rest of the stuff you’ll come across. The book is a wild and intriguing ride.

These creative structures generate interesting possibilities that Marche explores to great effect. (And it’s not just Marche that deserves the credit — the book was designed and typeset by Gaspereau’s own Andrew Steeves, whose blood, sweat, and tears must be in here nearly as much as Stephen’s.) Particularly in the extended sex scene, “Life of Flesh,” that makes up chapter 3 of 5. When you’re used to book pages carrying 300 words and then you’re hit with a tiny 12-point “No” and a vast sheet of white space followed by a massive “Yes” that claims the entire next page, it’s striking. There’s really something there, something that gets at the feeling Marche tries to put across (in this case an orgasm) in a manner rarely achieved by conventional means.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Marche is a damn good sex writer. He’s also adept at probing emotional undercurrents rarely voiced in our daily lives — things like the guilty, shame, and need that surge up when a best friend and a wife fall in love when the friend/husband goes insane.

And that’s the basic plot. Tim and Clive are best buds. Tim meets Viv and they get married, but within a couple years he loses his mind. Viv sticks with him a long time even though he’s been institutionalized and stands little chance of recovering. Finally she relents in her devotion to a man who’s arguably no longer there, and flies to Argentina for a night of love with said best friend.

It’s a simple story, which is all Marche or any writer could manage in this format. While the book is 260 pages long, it’s really a mid-length novella because there are so few words on each page. This is a plus if you don’t feel like reading 100,000 words of concrete poetry.

Which you’d be justified in, because although this is a fascinating book it does have lulls. The dinner conversation between Viv and Clive from pp. 62-139 is a case in point. Here Marche employs an ingenious structure of columns so readers can simultaneously take in what each character is both saying and thinking (often completely different things). But while this is interesting and amusing, much of what Clive and Viv think is banal (e.g. “Out the window, brothers squabbling with Italianate hand gestures about their mother’s habits”).

It’s already jarring to have to jump between columns to navigate thought and speech (many of the pages in Love and the Mess We’re In have multiple elements with no clear reading pattern). But when the reward for struggling to decode Marche’s message is something as pedestrian as, well, a pedestrian, you just feel like hugging Jonathan Franzen for believing good literature doesn’t have to mean arduous reading.

Of course, it may not be fair to evaluate Love and the Mess We’re In on fiction’s terms. (Although it is marketed as such both by Gaspereau and the bookstores. Head to Chapters and you’ll likely find it on the New Fiction table.) But really, that’s Marche’s innovation with this book — stealing concrete poetry from the verse-writers who’ve been hogging it for centuries and smuggling it over to the fiction folks.

Considering this innovation, it would’ve been grand if he’d made more of a splash storywise. Instead, the book is more about expressing the feelings brought up by a challenging scenario (in this case adultery perpetrated against a madman whom both culprits love deeply). It’s a slice-of-life work. In that regard this fictive apple hasn’t fallen far from the poetic tree.

All the same, Marche’s latest effort is a bold exploration of fictions formal frontier. It’s quite simply a marvel that the book was produced at all, given recent trends toward conservatism in publishing. And while it’s not a perfect book — sometimes Marche’s wordiness goes too far — it’s certainly an inventive piece of art that goes a long way in showing the potential scope for typography to impact the reading experience.

If you like concrete poetry, this is for you. This is the bees knees, this is your mandatory assignment due at the end of class tomorrow in a blue duotang. If you like gorgeously fabricated books printed on paper so good you could eat it, this is also for you. And if you’re gunning for some nuanced explorations of love, loss, and guilt, you might also want to pick this up before you hit your next counseling session. On the other hand, if you recoil at phrases like “Sounding and astounding / Resounding and running and rousing / Slivering and silvering and spilling and slippering / Raining and running and rushing / slumping and slouching,” then consider yourself forewarned.

Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

Standard
Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy. 339 pp. $22.95. (Thanks to Thomas Allen for a review copy of this work.)

Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy. 339 pp. $22.95. (Thanks to Thomas Allen for a review copy of this work.)

Tamas Dobozy’s breakout short story collection, Siege 13, is not so much about the Red Army’s six-week siege of Budapest in early 1945 as the moral problems it created. This violent moment, in which Hungarians were killed and raped in the tens of thousands, created intense ethical dilemmas for those who experienced it. Betray friends to save yourself, or choose death? Ally with the enemies to ease your suffering, or oppose them and face the consequences? Surrender your body as an object of pleasure, or submit it to torture? Such are the questions the characters that populate this vigorous and imaginative collection face in those awful weeks, and their answers stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Indeed, “the rest of their lives” is another key to understanding Siege 13, for the book is as much about how the traumas of decades past alter the course of lives in a new country, and even among a new generation. While a few of the stories are set during the siege itself, most follow the lives of Hungarian immigrants in Canada whose postwar experiences are fundamentally shaped by the things they witnessed and the choices they made in those harrowing weeks. Some shot their comrades to prove their loyalty to the Soviets. Some saved those on the brink of death at great risk to themselves. Others simply went mad and fed themselves to lions. Yet whatever they did, those who survived were hurled onto new paths in life — ones that continue to mark the Hungarian community at home and abroad more than half a century after the fact.

In this respect the work is universal, as it explores the way traumas echo through time and affect society in subtle ways. Consequently, while focused on Hungary’s trials at the close of the Second World War, Dobozy’s work also enhances our understanding of how the war as a whole continues to affect all societies that were implicated in it. Those who faced death, who saw it, and who caused it were altered in ways that shaped them and their communities. The traumas of the ’40s made and broke marriages, brought children into worlds of love and loneliness, and created a wealth of stories that would shape the future as much as the siege itself.

This is another theme in Siege 13 — how people talk about the past. One way is to lie, and this is a central concern for Dobozy’s in this collection. Many of the stories focus on identity and whether people are who they say they are. For Hungarians who survived the siege, their postwar identities often seem to be founded on what they did to make it through. The life-and-death stakes of those winter weeks put hypothetical morality to the test, exposing exactly what people would do for (or to) others when push came to shove. And while some were openly fêted for their heroism, those who threw others under the bus (or the tank, as it were) often sought to obscure such acts as they built new lives. This secrecy leaves them with intense psychological burdens and a fear of being exposed — which in some cases comes true, often many years later in a new country (to great dramatic effect). In other cases, however, it simply leads to endless debate about who’s who — a compulsion bequeathed to the Hungarians of Siege 13 by the joint forces of wartime savagery and Soviet spying. But just when you think you’re on the verge of figuring out who’s phony and who’s legit, with the help of some deft storytelling manoeuvres Dobozy insures it’s never so easy to pin a character down.

Indeed, he has published over fifty pieces of fiction in literary journals, and it shows. His prose is impeccably constructed, and his stories have the requisite conflict and mystery to keep readers turning pages. And once the stories are over readers are rewarded with a plethora of symbolic resonances to keep them intellectually engaged with the moral problems explored in the texts and the artistry used to construct them. Siege 13 is not mere entertainment, but writing that strikes at life’s thorny problems — the grey areas between loyalty and expedience, love and liberty, honesty and peace — in ways that are both pleasing to read and jolting to one’s moral compass. This is, above all, a work concerned with the ethics of relationships, and it challenges readers to contemplate moral quandaries that have no easy answers.

The collection’s philosophical bent and impossible dilemmas are also what might make it less appealing to certain readers. While most of the stories resolve with acceptable clarity, some are so complex and ambiguous they bear rereading in order to fully grasp them. This is not a weakness per se, but not everyone relishes that level of density in a work of fiction. Furthermore, the intellectual nature of the work — Dobozy is an English professor and the stories were organized around concepts like loyalty and faithlessness — at times smacks of contrivance, as though the stories serve to illustrate the moral problem at hand. In this respect his writing connects more with the likes of Sartre and Camus, who used their fiction to explore philosophical problems identified in advance, than with, say, Jonathan Franzen, who is consciously devoted to character more than argument. Again, there is nothing wrong with this approach, and indeed the book is both richly rewarding and wildly amusing.

All in all, Siege 13 is a smart, entertaining collection replete with memorable characters and moving narratives. It illuminates a neglected corner of the past while touching on the timeless issue of trauma’s long-term effects on our emotional lives and relationships. Dobozy is a unique artist-intellectual who has bridged the gap between substance and entertainment, and the result is worth reading.

Review: Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Standard
Saleema Nawaz. 'Bone and Bread'. House of Anansi Press, 2013. $22.95. 448 pp.

Saleema Nawaz. ‘Bone and Bread.’ House of Anansi Press, 2013. $22.95. 448 pp.

Bone and Bread is a novel about the bonds between family members, the tragic consequences to which these can lead, and the struggle of one woman to free herself from their burdens without abandoning those she loves. Following the life of Beena Singh and her sister Sadhana as they grapple with growing up amid successive tragedies, Nawaz’s debut novel asks what it means to come of age in Canada, to be different, and to be a woman in all its meanings: a daughter, a friend, a sister, a lover, a mother, and a working professional. It’s a thoughtful work that heralds the blossoming of a new literary talent.

The novel opens with Sadhana’s sudden death at 32 from complications related to anorexia. Then we are brought back to the girls’ early years to watch as the traumas leading to a life of disease (and, for Beena, of caregiving) pile up. First, their Indian father drops dead in his bagel shop when they are just a few years old. The sisters are then lovingly raised into their teens by their freethinking, hippie, American-Irish-Canadian mother. But when she chokes on a bone in a chicken dinner the girls have prepared, Beena and Sadhana are cast into a life of emotional free fall that each handles in her own way — with serious consequences for both.

Beena looks for love from the bagel boys working in the shop now run by their surly uncle, only to find herself pregnant and abandoned. Sadhana, meanwhile, stops eating. These two events will relegate Beena to a life of looking after others, and the novel’s main focus is on her efforts to cope with a sick sister and a young son (Quinn).

Indeed, the narrative is recounted entirely from Beena’s perspective, and so when the sisters grow and inevitably develop independent lives, the novel transforms from a tale of two young girls joined at the hip to one centred on Beena’s efforts to guard herself against the emotional pain her sister often inflicts (both verbally and through her brushes with starvation) while at the same time trying to maintain the bond they developed as children. With a son in tow and no outside support, this is a herculean task that Beena approaches with an honest mix of courage and timidity. She is a well-drawn, sympathetic character who seems like she has walked onto the page from real life. This, however, occasionally works against Nawaz when her protagonist shies time and again from life’s thorny problems — like her son’s wish to meet his father — and in so doing saps some of the plot’s energetic potential.

Nonetheless, with Beena at the helm of the narrative, we are offered a sensitive window on the extraordinary challenges of growing up orphaned, being a teen mother, and supporting a sibling who frequently flirts with death. Beena also faces the universal trials of being a not-too-pretty, not-too-sporty, not-too-brilliant teenager trying to find a place for herself in an often cruel and blithe world. Nawaz’s exploration of Beena’s journey to adulthood is a treat that’s bound to resonate with a wide audience. This intimate, first-person account of her experiences means, however, that readers have no access to the inner lives of the other characters. This sometimes leaves Sadhana and Quinn’s emotional lives frustratingly off limits.

Set largely in an apartment above a Montreal bagel shop — the novel is domestically focused, and most scenes take place in the girls’ home — the world of the Singh girls is beautifully rendered and instantly familiar to those who’ve walked the streets of Quebec’s great city. Although the narrative is firmly anchored in Beena’s inner life, Nawaz succeeds in capturing something of  the Montreal soul, which is a pleasure to read. The same goes for Ottawa, although the story only moves there belatedly when Beena distances herself from Sadhana’s illness and buys a bungalow west of Centretown.

Nawaz is a talented prose stylist with a fluid voice. Barring the rare awkward adjective or simile, her sentences are precise, vivid, and warm. And like the writing itself, the story has the charm to keep readers turning pages. Even if it meanders occasionally, Bone and Bread always returns to the core question of how Beena struggles to find love and define responsibility in very challenging circumstances. It’s a question well worth reading about.

(Read Saleema’s response to my review here.)

———-

Thanks to House of Anansi Press for a review copy of this title.

Review: The World by Bill Gaston

Standard
Review: The World by Bill Gaston

The World?” a friend of mine chuckled, noticing my holiday reading. “What kind of title is that?”

As it turns out, quite an apt one which resonates on many levels through this affecting book.

The story revolves around Stuart Price, a lonesome divorcé whose house burns to the ground when, irony of ironies, he barbecues his mortgage papers after finally paying the house off. More than this, he’s sunk his lump-sum pension into it, and he’s forgotten to pay his house insurance. So the book opens with Stuart — retired, divorced, penniless, houseless, and pensionless — watching his world burn.

This almost irreverent beginning is a sign of things to come. Indeed, tragic situations met with bemused acceptance is something like Gaston’s modus operandi in this novel. But his protagonist’s irony isn’t a ragged sarcasm that veers into unfeeling. Rather, it heightens the experience of Stuart’s helplessness, and makes you ache all the more. I closed this book with a decidedly broken heart.

Having nothing but an old Datsun, Stuart takes to the road to visit an old friend, Melody, who he inexplicably wants to see. They haven’t been in touch for decades, and his remembrances of their thrilling camping trips, witty conversations, and elaborate meals are brought forth in great detail as he makes his way from Victoria to Toronto — in the process destroying his car, catching lice, nearly sleeping with a humpbacked woman, and being charged at by a maddened hitchhiker. Not to mention winding up in jail.

This is a wild and tragic road trip, but by page 140 Stuart’s obsession with Melody is somewhat irksome — particularly as it had  little explanation.

But then two things happened. First, I realized his obsessing attenuated the dullness of his existence through memory of lively times. On reaching retirement, Stuart is a mousy depressive, and his ironic reservedness is grating (but also very real). Melody is his only link to something like fun, and as a symbol of longing her role is more justified.

Secondly, the book shifted perspective. Arriving in Toronto, we now see Stuart through Melody’s eyes. And given that we know far more than she about how desperate he is to rekindle their tenuous connection, this is interesting. Things are complicated too by the fact that Melody is dying of cancer and is planning on taking drastic measures to deal with it.

Changing the point of view not only breathes fresh air into the narrative but has a cumulative effect. Because Melody is now spending her time with Stuart, whose mind we know intimately from Part I, every interaction has a double meaning — how Melody takes it, and how we imagine Stuart must feel it at the same time.

The third and final part of the book is told from the perspective of Melody’s father, Hal, who suffers from Alzheimers. The snowball effect of dramatic irony is at its height in this poignant, fragmented section, as Stuart and Melody have spent the middle third of the book paying him visits in his care facility and reading to him. Decades prior, he wrote a novel called The World, which he can no longer remember, and they are introducing him to it as if for the first time. (Or is it?)

This brings back the resonance question. For, the title of Gaston’s novel is certainly linked to this fictive novel. The book itself is about a tiny island that was a colony for Cantonese lepers in the 19th century — a place those who lived there referred to as “the world.” This gives a clue to what Gaston is driving at: the circumscribed, individuated experience of life.

Beyond this nested narrative, Gaston’s book is about what the world is from a subjective viewpoint. Everyone abides in his own world, and it can all come crashing down so easily.

In this regard, the novel’s design is ingenious. In section one, Stuart loses his material world: his belongings, his money, his job. Literally everything he owns is destroyed, right down to his car and glasses.

In section two, Melody loses her body, ravaged as it is by a cancer that robs her of sense pleasures — in particular, the ability to swallow food. This is especially heartbreaking for a foodie.

And Gaston to goes to great lengths  — too great, perhaps — to cast her as a gourmet. Here is one of the rare cases where he flirted with tedium. There is only so much one can read about ghost peppers, smoked mackerel, fiddlehead portobellos, lemon-stuffed pheasant, kimchi tempura, bison barbecue, Korean sardines, oatmeal stout, and fried goose meat before it feels more like a menu than a novel.

But this may all be meant to heighten the pain when she has to pour tinned slop into a tube piercing her stomach. It’s a heartbreaking and sobering loss.

Finally, Melody’s father, Hal, is losing his mind. He doesn’t recognize his daughter, or Stuart. And he thinks he’s living in a Nepalese monastery where the Filipino caregivers are Tibetan refugees. He is afraid. He’s using all the Buddhist advice he learned in the 14 years he spent in Asia before he got sick — a period of escape that had no small effect on Melody’s life — but everything is falling apart and he is powerless to make sense of it. His world is continually being unmade.

So these three worlds — material things, body, and mind — are all at risk. Watching Gaston’s characters deal with these (mostly unstoppable) challenges is worthwhile and touching. This is a book that bears reading.

Each of the characters irritated me in their own way, I must admit. But I respected them. And by the end, I really liked them all.

More than that, I felt for them. The emotional heft of this book snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting it — even halfway through, I wasn’t — but I can still feel them in my chest. Stuart, Melody, and Hal. It’s a haunting novel.

Stylistically, The World is well-crafted. Gaston knows how to put a sentence together, understands how to string words so don’t stumble over them. More than this, so that — sometimes — you dance over them.

He’s cool, pliant, and witty. A wry humor pervades every page. The man is a fine writer.

He’s also an organic narrator. His story doesn’t smack of contrivance or melodrama, the way so many do. Reading The World is to go on a strange and natural journey.

It’s a journey that’s understated and bittersweet. But it’s one well worth the trouble. Bill Gaston‘s The World is not a novel to let slip by unremarked.

Review: DW Wilson’s ‘Once You Break A Knuckle’

Standard

When I heard D.W. Wilson’s book was about the small towns of my home province, BC — not to mention the tradesmen I worked summers with in my undergrad years — it didn’t get my heart racing. Rural life isn’t a subject I gravitate to naturally.

But Wilson has garnered a lot of attention recently, so when his book came out I thought I’d take a look. I’m glad I did.

Firstly, it’s pretty bad-ass. And ‘bad-ass’ is the sort of adjective you’ll find in Once You Break A Knuckle. It’s a compelling mix of girl problems, tested friendships, and redneck beatdowns. Who knew Invermere was so exciting?

Wilson’s style is lean and lyrical, with just enough working-class wordplay to make the stories warm. His characters don’t drive, for example, they tear-ass down the Trans-Canada. They also get lonely, betrayed, and throttled to within an inch of their lives. These are not the kind of stories where someone stares wistfully into the cloudy sky, sighs wistfully, and wistfully pours him or herself a cup of Earl Grey. Things happen, people change. Some die. It’s exciting.

Wilson’s story “The Dead Roads” won the BBC Short Story Prize last year, but my favourite in the collection is “Sediment”. It’s about a young Jehovah’s Witness who saves a vulnerable boy from a thrashing by a school bully. The unlikely friendship that develops out of this incident shapes their lives in unforeseen ways, and the story takes you on a journey through the meaning of loyalty and sacrifice. Like many of the stories in Once You Break A Knuckle, it achieves a nice balance of tenderness and restraint, introspection and ass-kicking. And there’s a girl involved, to round things out.

The writing throughout the collection is elegant, and the stories are skillfully told. Invermere springs to life as a place of both pastoral magic and unchecked terror. And the characters that populate this landscape — longing youths, angry boys, heartbroken men — make this a rich and rewarding world to get lost in for a few hours. So when are you going to read When You Break A Knuckle?