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Book review

No artifice in gem-like fiction debut Add to ...

  • Title What's Left Us
  • Author Aislinn Hunter
  • Genre fiction
  • Publisher Polestar
  • Pages 200
  • Price $19.95

The opening story in this collection is a gem -- the sort that arrests with its surface sparkle, then holds attention with its richness of hue and reflection.

Sophie works the ticket booth of a porn cinema in Dublin. A God-fearing Catholic girl "at her peak of sexual repression," she looks upon the job (the only one available aside from barmaid) as a Divine summons "to test herself."

Then she encounters James, muttering in the street over a bit of graffiti scrawled on the cobblestones. Neither of them can decipher the message, but the odd encounter inscribes something indelible on them both.

James and Sophie both love God with "the quiet kind of self-flagellation that comes from wondering if you love God enough. James is ready to give himself to God. But something about Sophie has bowled him over."

Meanwhile, Sophie feels compelled to pay a first visit to the flickering booth at the back of the cinema, where Peter, the projectionist, is discovered to have "his hand around his penis." Sophie averts her eyes to some nudie pin-ups, and casually asks if the film is any good.

This tale hints obliquely at meanings that don't coalesce until the final few sentences, which gather the story's eccentric tangents together with wonderfully poetic resonance and precision.

Vancouver writer Aislinn Hunter lived for several years in Dublin, and sets four of the six stories in that city, with a closing novella set in Ireland and England.

Much of this book presents women at the mercy of their tenacious need for men who fail them. But Hunter's best work deals less with domestic breakdown than with the more elemental of life's crises.

A standout presents a young woman's prolonged grief at the drowning death of her sister. Family lore of the banshee -- the wailing Irish harbinger of death -- comes home to roost in the woman's darkened bedroom. Her visions of a withered crone with black teeth finally spur a nightmarish scene in which the spectre's shrill keening triggers a long-delayed catharsis.

The title novella follows a woman's pregnancy through the divided attentions of her married boyfriend (the child's father) and her disapproving mother, and her own search for a redeeming paternity, present or ancestral.

The eventual birth is suitably climactic and surprisingly unredemptive. Hunter's most pleasing strength is her fondness for wry candour over uplifting artifice.

Toronto critic and playwright Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.

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