If there is such a thing as a farm team in Canadian literature, it is called The Journey Prize Anthology, an annual collection of the best short fiction published in our literary magazines. Am I using the term farm team correctly? I know as much about sports as I do about spatial engineering.
But this is how I perceive it. I’m wary of picking up a collection if there is too much made of the writer having a story on the Journey Prize short list. It says to me – and I know this isn’t a fair assumption – that the stories will probably be about losing one’s grandmother and watching a river, then breaking up with a university boyfriend or girlfriend. Perhaps a month-long stint in the eating-disorder ward or an encounter with a homeless person – you know, stories one reads in literary journals sponsored by universities that tend to follow a snoozy, acceptable form.
This is not to fault the prize in general, but simply to say that when a jury of time-starved writers has to read a bundle of submissions, the best stories are the ones they can never agree on, and so the mushy, mediocre middle often rises.
But, of course, there are countless exceptions – Pasha Malla, Heather O’Neill, Emily Schultz, Alissa York – and now Théodora Armstrong, whose first collection of striking, realist stories, Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, is an exceptional debut.
The opening story, Rabbit, is a taut, first-person account of a latchkey kid who is trying to imagine what happened to the girl who went missing in town. In the second story, Fishtail, Armstrong proves that she can just as easily embody the voice of a fortysomething dad accompanying his two teenaged daughters on a weekend trip to Quadra Island.
The Art of Eating is engrossingly narrated by Charlie, a disgruntled alcoholic chef in Vancouver, who is expecting his first child. Armstrong nails the intricate workplace hierarchy that occurs in every restaurant, the long and awkward hours spent alongside people you hate but continue to drink with, the manic pace, and sense of both optimism and doom that occurs before every night’s cash-out. The level of specific sensory detail in this story pushes it along nicely until the reader is suffocating inside Charlie’s self-defeating brain as he asks for a raise.
In Thanks to Carin, we meet a Vancouver woman who reassess her life choices while floating down the channel toward Skaha Lake.
What ties all of the stories together is the striking landscape of British Columbia. Armstrong doesn’t go into lengthy, indulgent descriptive passages. Rather, she expertly provides us with visual cues that matter to her characters in the moment, bringing the unique geography of B.C. to life: Two brothers explore caves on the beach in Victoria in one story; in another, kids tempt fate by jumping cliffs in Lynn Canyon, scaring the tourists on the suspension bridge.
Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility is the first book to be published under Astoria, House of Anansi’s new short-fiction imprint, and it starts the list off with aplomb.