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Barrelling Forward

By Eva Crocker

House of Anansi Press, 264 pages, $19.95

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The Redemption of Galen Pike

By Carys Davies

Biblioasis, 176 pages, $17.95

In her debut collection, Newfoundland's Eva Crocker favours story titles with words that imply activity or motion. In addition to the title story, there is Dealing with Infestation, Auditioning, Serving and All Good, Having a Great Time.

By comparison, Welsh writer Carys Davies tends more toward elliptical titles, many of them encompassing only a single word: Jubilee, Myth, Bonnet, Precious, Creed. If we may assume that writers choose their titles with great care, we may also consider that the different approaches here speak to the kinds of craftspeople we will encounter in these collections, and to the different tone each one employs.

Even before cracking their covers, these two collections signal different characteristics. Crocker's features a brightly coloured abstract painting, with pinks and oranges and yellows streaking across the horizontal-like waves: motion again, and an indication of vibrant feeling. The cover of Davies's book is a sickly green, with an illustration of lips spread open to reveal crooked, painted teeth that also appear as though they are rotting. The title of Crocker's collection implies movement, and an attitude of abandon: The specific verb "barrelling" connotes freedom and some degree of chaos. "Redemption," by contrast, is more abstract, tilting in the direction of an idea rather than an action.

This notion is solidified in Davies's opening story, appropriately titled The Quiet. Right from the first sentence – "She didn't hear him arrive" – Davies solidifies her approach, which accentuates technique and style over action. The opening sentence of the story both recapitulates the concept in the title and provides a signpost for what lies ahead. There is no clarification as to whom the pronouns in the sentence refer: Right out of the gate, Davies plunks the reader down in an unfamiliar, unknown location and faced with two anonymous figures, one of whom is deprived of a key sense impression (a limitation that is likewise downloaded onto the reader).

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The following paragraph similarly refuses to identify our two protagonists, preferring instead to fill in environmental details such as "the rain … thundering down on the tin roof like a shower of stones" and "the scrape of his iron-rimmed wheels on the track, the soft thump of his feet in the wet dust." It is not until the third paragraph – which, like the first, comprises a single sentence – that we are given the name of one of the characters, Henry Fowler. We are also told that "she hated it when he came."

The opening gambit in Crocker's Dealing with Infestation, by comparison, is more concrete and straightforward: "There was a semi-finished apartment below the place Francis was renting and it sucked all the warmth out of his home." Specific details in the sentence – not least of them Francis's name – provide grounding, and we are immediately situated in a recognizable place and scenario. Unlike Davies's brief, five-word opener, Crocker's first paragraph sprawls out to a languorous 110 words, replete with concrete signifiers that help further embed the reader in the context of Francis's damp, shivery apartment: "The cold made his sheets and pillowcases feel wet; each night he clenched his teeth as he slid his hand into the frigid space between his pillow and the mattress."

Crocker's style – accessible and reader-friendly, heavily reliant on dialogue – proves more familiar than that of Davies, who prefers withholding pertinent information and injecting an element of mystery into her short, intriguing tales. Even when things become clear – often not until the closing moments of a given piece – there is usually an element of surprise or ambiguity attached.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Redemption of Galen Pike's penultimate story, Nothing Like My Nightmare, which is composed of a single, 187-word paragraph. Davies's astounding microfiction features an unnamed, first-person protagonist imagining all the ill fortunes that might befall a female traveller – student? new hire? – flying to a school in a different country. The imaginings run the gamut from the mundane ("she'd lose her passport or her glasses or run out of anti-bacterial handwash") to the outlandish ("her plane would crash, exploding in a ball of black fire somewhere high above the mountains"). When the final moment occurs, the reader is floored both by its unexpectedness and the literary legerdemain that allows Davies to carry off such a reversal in so short a space and without ever providing clarifying details about the situation or the relationship between the speaker and the traveller.

Here, as elsewhere, Davies relies for her effects on what remains unsaid: She forces her reader to pay close attention and frequently to fill in the blanks in stories that often circle around their central subject without alighting on it directly. This requires a deft hand and superb control, and Davies evinces both; the stories in The Redemption of Galen Pike are tiny marvels of technique and language. They often traffic in dark material: the couple in the opener share a murderous bond arising out of a mutual history of abuse; the brief microfiction Myth focuses on the possibly apocryphal idea that Amazon warriors had one breast amputated to increase their aggressiveness in battle; and the title story features a woman who visits a condemned man in a Colorado jailhouse. Yet the notion of redemption persists, not just in the title story, but also in the collection as a whole, which ends on an unexpected note of hope and uplift.

The stories in Barrelling Forward are more conventional, cast in the mode of kitchen-sink realism and focusing on dissatisfied characters straining at the bonds of their situations. Francis in Dealing with Infestation is a milquetoast teacher who blows his chance at connection with a female colleague not as a result of the possibly infectious scabies rash he exposes her to, but because he is too meek to stand up for her in a staff meeting. The Landlord, one of the collection's standout stories, features a woman whose desire to be liked backfires at her job and in her living environment, where she finds herself subject to the unwanted sexual advances of the greasy, detestable owner of the rental she shares with a roommate.

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The frankness and energy in Barrelling Forward are the products of youthful exuberance, but there is a paradoxical sense that we've been here before: This terrain has been covered by other writers, in much the same way. By contrast, The Redemption of Galen Pike feels startlingly original, in part precisely because of the restraint the author exhibits. Davies's technically accomplished, glancing tales offer the frisson of the unexpected; by the end of Crocker's collection, one is left echoing the assessment of a supercilious teacher in the opener's ill-fated staff meeting: "All very dramatic."

Steven W. Beattie is reviews editor at Quill & Quire and writes a monthly column on short stories for The Globe and Mail.

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