Category Archives: Traci Skuce

Story collection grapples with loss and grief

What Can’t Be Undone

By dee Hobsbawn-Smith

Thistledown Press

200 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

The cover picture on dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s new collection of stories, What Can’t Be Undone, is of a rope pulled taut. The plies of the rope are severed and frayed, and only a single strand holds it together. And this is exactly where we meet the narrators of these stories: along that one, tenuous strand, grappling with grief or loss.

dee Hobsbawn-Smith lives in Saskatchewan, where undoubtedly the landscape inspires her work. Her poetry, essays, fiction, and journalism, have appeared in Canadian, American, and international literary journals, newspapers, magazines and anthologies including The Malahat Review, Gastronomica and Western Living. Her first book of poetry, Wildness Rushing In, was published in 2014. What Can’t Be Undone is her first collection of short stories.

These 13 stories all deal with relationships and what is lost within them. The careful, textured prose reveals Hobsbawn-Smith compassion for her characters. None come off as two-dimensional stand-ins for the questions she explores. They’re deeply imagined people, honest and true.

“Monroe’s Mandolin” depicts a woman who owns a bar. She runs the bar, the Foundry, bought it for her brother, a man who’s life is lost to addiction. “I told myself it would give Cory a refuge if he ever reclaims himself. That it had nothing to do with me, or what I want. But my life is locked into these bricks and boards. Cory’s has gone to waste. I don’t know anymore if I am looking for hope in my twin’s life or in my own.”

In “The Quinzhee,” a woman recounts the winter her brother, then 14, became obsessed building a quinzhee, a shelter made by hollowing out a pile of settled snow. He died and, decades later, she still feels responsible. On the other hand, is “Still Life with Birds”, a story of sisters. Ariana, the younger of the two, runs a restaurant and tends to the convalescent Violetta. We learn Ariana has donated a kidney to Violetta, who still lives. But it’s expected she’ll die within 15 years, and Ariana treats her with kid gloves, terrified of that impending loss.

I appreciated how place permeates Hobsbawn-Smith’s work, the landscape always varied—Vancouver streets, rural Alberta and Saskatchewan, coastal Vancouver Island—and always rendered with a poetic sensibility. Hobsbawn-Smith’s sentences read in a sorrowful cadence which echo, not only the characters’ grief, but the expansive landscape.

In “Other Mothers’ Sons,” Joanna drives along southern B.C. toward Calgary, picks up a hitch-hiker, a boy the age her son was when he died. As she drives, he sleeps: “She glanced at the boy, wondering if he looked like his mother. If she missed him. Surely. The borealis leaped from sky to windshield, the sky baroque and wild and beautiful. The boy slept on, his head rolling, unaware of Joanna beside him, her head thrown back, looking and weeping for what she could never hold again.”

While Hobsbawn-Smith’s strength is in description and character, her dialogue, I felt, often faltered. Sometimes she uses dialect, dropped g‘s, and twangy ain’ts that grated my reading ear. Other times, it didn’t feel like enough was bubbling beneath the speech, the dialogue an exchange of little more than information.

In the end, though, this collection offers an honest exploration of what keeps us in this world after we’ve endured monumental loss. How it is through our unmendable, human heartbreak that we somehow find the strength to carry on.

Traci Skuce is a writer based in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Specimen dissects unquiet mysteries of the heart


By Irina Kovalyova

House of Anansi

256 pages; $19.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

Not long ago, I met a surgeon at a friend’s wedding. I asked him if, in opening the human body, he was ever inspired to write down insights about such revealed mystery. Not everyone, after all, gets to examine the dark spaces of the abdomen, say, or the heart. But he only shifted from foot to foot and scrunched his brow. “It’s all just routine procedure,” he said. Needless to say, his answer disappointed me.

There are, however, a legion of physicians and scientists who have felt compelled to marry the disciplines of science and literary art. And now Irina Kovalyova joins their ranks. Kovalyova has an impressive, science-heavy resume: a master’s degree in chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in microbiology from Queen’s, and she is currently a professor of molecular biology at Simon Fraser. She also holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC and has written Specimen, a collection of eight short stories and one novella.

In each of her short stories, Kovalyova investigates how science impacts human relationships. The daughter who discovers her biological dad is a sperm donor and sets out to meet him, the woman whose post-divorce grief is assuaged through Botox injections, and the Russion biology professor who must reconcile his son’s desire to transition to female.

Kovalyova approaches her work like a scientist. And by that I mean, she’s willing to experiment. Almost every story in this collection plays with form and I imagined Kovalyova entering her stories with a science-curious mind: What if I write a story like a clinical trial report? Or a story that splits, dividing the narrative into two physical columns? Or a story that harkens back to strange, nineteenth century experiments, but then twists into a modern email epistle? Or reads like a list and circles back on itself?

I was particularly delighted by the experimental “list” story. The story is entitled “Gdansk” and it begins with a school group crossing the Soviet border in November, 1989, the Berlin wall barely down (the psychological walls still there), and the borders just beginning to open. The story stays close to Katya, her observations of her host family, her crush and her love of science. Because this story is all about concision—each section is numbered and limited to two or three sentences (sometimes only a word), I felt a life sketched out and contained within tiny borders, filled in by the silence and white spaces between.

At other points in Kovalyova’s collection, the narrative experiments seem too contrived. Too controlled. This happens mildly in some of the other stories, but overtly in “The Big One.” A mother and her young daughter are driving up three underground parking stories. She has this thought: “What if, I think, the Big One happens today? The One everyone keeps talking about.” She meditates on her fear and then, lo and behold, the Big One strikes! It’s too bad, really, because the story is otherwise interesting and descriptive. The physical page split in two, just like the ground, with simultaneous text on either side of the line.

The final story, “The Blood Keeper,” a novella, is an intriguing read. Kovalyova does well with this longer form, fleshing out a complex narrative about a young Russian woman who travels to North Korea to work in the Botanical Gardens in Pyongyang. There are all the ingredients to drive a good plot forward: forbidden love, espionage and closed political borders. And yet it doesn’t read like a thriller, but instead of a young woman willing to probe the unquiet mysteries of the heart. Throughout Specimen, Kovalyova pushes boundaries, going beyond “routine procedures.” She offers readers a glimpse through a literary microscope, and into our own dark spaces.

Traci Skuce lives in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Adderson reveals the dramatic, messy world of Ellen

Caroline Adderson’s novel Ellen in Pieces has been nominated for a 2015 B.C. Book Prize. She is the author of three previous novels, A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice, and The Sky is Falling, two collections of short stories, Bad Imaginings and Pleased to Meet You. A two-time winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, Adderson’s work has also been nominated for many awards including the Scotiabank Giller (longlist) and the Governor General’s Literary Award. Recently Adderson answered Traci Skuce’s questions for The Coastal Spectator.

Each chapter in Ellen in Pieces reads like a short story. In fact three of the chapters won, or were long listed, for various magazine awards. At the same time, there’s a cohesion and propulsion that moves the reader from one chapter to the next. Can you comment on your choice of form? Did it grow out of the character, Ellen, or did Ellen grow out of the form?

Neither, actually.  The idea of the form came about as a kind of protest. In 2009, I read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which I thoroughly enjoyed, except for the fact that it was touted as a novel when it is obviously a collection of linked stories. The next year I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I loved even more, but again, there was that word on the cover — “novel”. I was irritated for two reasons. First, did publishers think readers wouldn’t notice that they were reading stories and, second, were they so ashamed of the form (my favourite) that they wouldn’t even admit to publishing it?  Once I got over my irritation, I started to wonder if it was possible to write a novel wherein each chapter is a stand-alone story. That’s what I set out to do. Once I finished the stories and put them in order, however, I had to do a lot of cutting and shaping, mostly to eliminate the repetition of background material that each stand-alone story needed.

How Ellen came to me was quite dramatic.  I write for children, as well as adults. (I’ve published 12 kids’ books now.) Kid lit is a genre, meaning simply that it has rules. One of the primary rules is that the child protagonist, or the child-substitute (the squirrel or the bear), must solve her problem on her own, not have an adult solve the problem for her. In other words, she must be active. As soon as I grasped that principle, I recognized a flaw in my own writing – that my protagonists tend to be, while not necessarily passive, quite reflective.  Suddenly a door kicked open in my head and there stood Ellen, Super-Active Protagonist. She acts. She messes up her life, and then she fixes it, and everyone else’s while she’s at it.

The novel also breaks down into two parts: Act One and Act Two. The first two-thirds of the novel (Act One) is told mostly from Ellen’s point of view (with the exception of two chapters), but none of Act Two is. When in the writing did you realize you’d have to break out of Ellen’s point of view? Or had you intended it from the outset?

I intended it from the outset.  I wanted to make readers feel that Ellen was their close personal friend.  When the event happens which forces Ellen to retreat inside herself, her point of view disappears and we see her through the eyes of other people.  I was trying to mimic what happens when we actually lose a friend, how the stories about her are all we have left.

So when I started reading the book, I glanced at the blurb on the cover by Annabel Lyon: “Sexy, searing, and very, very funny.” And, of course, Ellen is so outrageous and bawdy in some moments that I laughed out loud. The sex is funny. The lice. Her father’s constipation. At the same time, the beauty, the real art of your work, is that you balance this with tragedy. My heart ached for these characters. I thought and worried about them—even dreamt about them! Can you talk about this balance between tragedy and comedy? Why striking that balance is important for you, and also the reader?

I’m sure there are readers who won’t go near my books after hearing what some of them are about: Buddhism and spinal cord injury (people actually recoil when I tell them that one!); the fear of nuclear war; hairdressers who make a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz Museum.  I’m a tragic-comic writer. I’m interested in dark subjects, but I explore them with a lot of humour. Life is suffering. Better laugh when you can.

I found Ellen to be incredibly self-aware. Anger, her default emotion, flares frequently, and sometimes she acts upon it, and sometimes not. But she’s able to name it, cool it out when she has to. She also reflects on the past, sees her part in things (particularly strained relationships) even if she doesn’t like what she sees. She’s also in her mid-forties. So I’m wondering how reaching mid-life impacts the way Ellen mulls over the past?

The book is really about middle-age and the great contentment that’s waiting there, unseen by the young. It’s so freeing to get some distance on what you’ve already lived and see that the things that seemed so important at the time, aren’t, and as a consequence, that the things ruffling you in the present perhaps aren’t going to turn out to be very important either. So why not just get on with life? That’s one road anyway. The other is bitterness and regret, such as Larry, Ellen’s ex husband, feels. Ellen, being an active protagonist, chooses life. So could we.

Many many writers have been directly (or indirectly) influenced by Chekhov. And in Ellen in Pieces, there’s a chapter where Ellen takes in a stray dog and in her search to name him pulls Chekhov’s “Lady with the Lap Dog” off the shelf and rereads the story. I loved that she did that, that you showed this character engaged with a story, both remembering the feelings she’d had reading it when she was younger and the new insights she gained as a dog owner. Can you talk about the ways you feel Chekhov has influenced you? And about the process of integrating literature—particularly Chekhov—into your stories and novels.

My last novel, The Sky Is Falling, was partly about the love of Russian literature. I worried about doing a similar thing in this book too, but it seems that Ellen is reaching more readers, so perhaps those who connect with that chapter might like to pick up the last book and really indulge themselves. Apart from the fact that Chekhov revolutionized the short story by making it about character instead of plot, quiet moments instead of dramatic revelations, it’s his tone that draws me.  Again, the stories are incredibly sad, yet so funny, which is the balance that moves me as a reader and a writer.  Also, in Russian writing — Chekhov and Tolstoy especially — there are continual references to both writers and literary characters. Yet in contemporary writing, there is very little of this. The characters rarely even read books. I’ve always found that odd. Ellen is very much a reader; she even has an old-fashioned dentist chair specifically to read in. I enjoyed rounding out her character through her literary tastes. In one chapter, for example, she manages to shake off a crush on a man because he offers her a Dean Koontz novel.

Traci Skuce lives in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Adams’ debut breaks first-novel conventions

Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother

By Hollie Adams

NeWest Press

186 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

Form and how to tell the story are critical choices for a writer. Some might say the only choice. And in writing her first novel, Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother, Hollie Adams has boldly tossed most first-novel conventions out the window.

Hollie Adams lives in Calgary where she completed her Ph.D. in English. She has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Filling Station, The Antigonish Review and The Windsor Review. She was a finalist for the Broken Social Scene story contest organized by House of Anansi in 2013.

At the outset of Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother we’re with our narrator, Carrie, and her mother at the hospital, in the last days before her mother dies. The relationship is strained and funny, Carrie’s mother demanding a specialty coffee, without dairy or soy: “Did she believe that if she drank cow’s milk now in the throes of one type of terminal cancer, she would also develop another type of terminal cancer? Did she think switching to almond milk would cure her incurable cancer?” Trying to make sense of this insufferable relationship prompts Carrie to write a self-help book: “A how-to self-help manual. For daughters dealing with their impossible dying mothers.”

But the book doesn’t explore the dealings with impossible mothers so much as explore the hilarity of a grief-induced breakdown. The writing is infused with puns and punctuated with a mish-mash of lists, surveys, pie charts, bold-faced trivia and useful facts about mice. In fact, the inventiveness is part of the novel’s charm. At one point, Carrie muses about cobbling together the book, deciding a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format might work best:

“Wouldn’t human existence be exponentially easier if for every scenario, a set of words would flash before your eyes offering you just two choices? A fifty-fifty chance to do the right thing, every time.”

Adams’ then proceeds to pepper the book with italicized choices, like: “Choose to go for a nighttime jog: turn to the last page of this book and then close the book because you have clearly chosen the wrong book.” Coupled with “Choose to go for a nighttime walk to the gelato shop two blocks away from your house: keep reading, this book is for you.

The biggest convention-breaker Adams uses is a second person narrator. This point of view has its drawbacks, calling immediate attention to itself and implicating the reader. On one hand, though, it works for this particular story because Carrie refuses to face her grief; the use of second person burying Carrie further beneath the rubble of her denial.

However, Carrie is also an “unlikeable” character. In the middle of her nervous breakdown, she’s constantly making poor choices. Like the Madonna-From-the-Eighties outfit she wears to her mother’s funeral. Or lying to her family about losing her job. Or not telling her sixteen year old daughter the truth about her father. Lies get heaped one on top of the other—she blurts out a marriage proposal to her boyfriend to cover up her lie about not working, suggests a trip to Disney World to avoid telling her daughter about the engagement—and, after a while, I grew tired of identifying with Carrie. Instead of loathsome in a compelling way, she became, well, just annoying.

While there are times Adams is downright funny, the strength of the story comes in the flashback scenes in relationship with her mother. The fact that Carrie got pregnant at seventeen, concealed it for seven months. The fact that Carrie’s mother took care of that baby while Carrie went off to college. But these moments are doled out in too-small doses and I didn’t get enough information to appreciate Carrie’s human complexities. Instead she’s mostly there for the sake of the joke. Which always, it seems, is on her.

Traci Skuce is a writer based in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Pigeon’s dynamic story collection never bores

Some Extremely Boring Drives

By Marguerite Pigeon

NeWest Press

214 pages; $19.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

There’s a propulsion to the narratives in Marguerite Pigeon’s Some Extremely Boring Drives that’s anything but boring. Attribute this to Pigeon’s strong yield of language and voice, her ability to cut a clear and quirky character, and her deft hand at developing uncanny situations.

Vancouver-based Pigeon, a former radio and television journalist, is versatile. She has previously published a novel, the political thriller Open Pit, and a book of poems, Inventory, which was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. Some Extremely Boring Drives is her first short story collection.

“Endurance,” the opening story, plunks the reader into the strange and icy world of an Arctic cross-country race. Like other characters that populate this collection, Annick is motivated by getting “as far as possible from weakness”, and must confront her own callous heart when she stumbles across a fellow racer in trouble. In “Torera”, the thirty-one year old, Sheridan, unwillingly travels to Spain in order to flee her overbearing forty-five year old–pregnant–mother. In “Power Out”, Nicole is forced on a long march down Yonge Street during the Toronto blackout, navigating the dark and her own secret.

Throughout the collection Pigeon investigates how our mobile culture impacts the psyche. For example, Melanie in “Backup” is happy on the road, enjoying her life as a backup singer for “transfers between places, the requirement of alarm clocks, transportation, a strict rehearsal schedule, and the exhausting shows. On the other hand, returning from a routine team building regime in “An Overnight Business Trip”, Peter recognizes how blase he’s become about travel. Not only are the air plane and hotel “standardized”, so is the way he interacts with others. He doesn’t have  anything to hide, but is afraid of stepping on any of a dozen invisible social field mines.

There’s often an incongruity between what Pigeon’s characters feel, what they want to feel and what they present to the world. She does this particularly well in the experimental story “Makeover” where the narrator bumps into her “other self”, a doppelganger–her life set on a different path, one with a baby. The story is full of thwarted expectations:

“In stories, meeting oneself is supposed to be like that. Something important. Corrective or horrific. But nothing was happening. I had met myself. She had a baby. I wore a mask of cosmetics. She seemed short-fused. She had questions. So did I.”

But those questions don’t get asked. And here’s where Pigeon’s work is strongest, when she pushes the  narrative into the unexpected, arriving at a deeper, more compelling knowing.

After a brief fisticuffs with her alternate self, the narrator notices she used to “hide an inner battle against too much feeling. . . I shuddered at this insight; I’d never before understood how much people could know just by watching you sit and think.” This mirrored experience leads to her to a new and frightening uncertainty, she’s “no longer sure how to judge what I was putting into the world through my face or body.”

The final story, “The Woman on the Move” pays homage to Kaftka’s “The Hunger Artist”, and is its modern equivalent, replete with sponsorships and motivational speeches, exploring movement in its extreme, as art and sacrifice. The perfect end to this dynamic, never boring, collection.

Traci Skuce is a writer based in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.