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The Two of Us

By Kathy Page

Biblioasis, 195 pages, $19.95

Sex and Death

Edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs

Astoria/House of Anansi, 325 pages, $19.95

Kathy Page has often been described as a consummate stylist, a master of craft, a writer's writer. All of which is true (if one ignores the implied slight in the final term), and yet none of these descriptions is sufficient to acknowledge the emotional effect her writing is capable of conveying.

This is especially true of Page's short fiction. The genre is frequently bypassed by readers who find it too intellectual or abstruse – stories, it is felt, are exercises in form and language akin to poetry, but without a truly satisfying affective core. Page puts the lie to this notion, not only supplying the bedrock of emotion, but doing so in remarkably compact tales that are all the more potent as a result of their brevity.

Take, for example, Pigs, from Page's most recent collection, The Two of Us. The story opens with Ken, a realtor, on vacation with his wife, Mimi. The two are in Santa Fe, N.M., to visit the home of Georgia O'Keeffe, which Mimi wants to see, and to which her husband had "happily agreed" to accompany her. This might appear like a vision of marital bliss, were it not for Page's opening salvo: a scene at a hotel breakfast buffet that culminates with Mimi, who is morbidly obese, being publicly humiliated when she finds herself unable to fit into one of the restaurant's chairs.

Ken and Mimi both struggle with their weight, though Ken has been more successful in managing to keep the pounds off, to the extent that he now eats a robust, calorie-filled meal, while his wife is reduced to grazing in a vain attempt to improve her health and self-image.

A fellow diner's casual insult – the epithet that provides the story with its title – provides the impetus for Mimi to confront the tensions that reside beneath the surface of her marriage. "They were killing each other routinely," Page writes in typically crystalline prose, "sometimes grudgingly or argumentatively, and mostly they were unaware of what they were doing." Among other things, Page's precision, unpredictability, and acuity can be held up as a rejoinder to any creative writing teacher who insists on the blanket avoidance of adverbs.

Mimi considers "the strangeness of the pact" she and her husband have entered into – and there is an undeniable strangeness to Page's writing, not just in Pigs but throughout The Two of Us (to say nothing of the rest of the author's body of work). What is most essential in Pigs, however, is the sentiment (as opposed to sentimentality, which, as always with Page, is utterly absent). This is a story that is deeply felt, resonant with the pang of perceptual recognition. Mimi's epiphanic moment at the story's close is as startling as it is inevitable, and all the more satisfying for its real tug of emotion.

And for its dark humour. Page can also be stingingly funny (see, e.g., Different Lips, about a woman whose anticipated reunion with an old flame is derailed when she discovers that an allergic reaction has caused his lips to balloon out to gargantuan proportions), though the emotion that runs most pervasively throughout The Two of Us is sadness.

Encroaching death haunts stories such as The Last Cut, about a cancer victim's final visit to her hairstylist before her treatments cause her to lose all her hair, or The Perfect Day, about a daughter who accompanies her mother and ailing father on an excursion to the Cotswold Hills. "It's a warm day in late May, just perfect," Page writes at the start of the latter story, an assertion that will be rendered bleakly ironic by the story's end.

A short scene in which the mother and daughter attempt to help the dying old man put on a sweater is a pristine example of Page's ability to convey large swaths of emotion in just a few simple gestures; she runs circles around authors who work twice as hard for half the reward.

Death also serves as one of the twin poles in a new edited anthology of stories dealing with life's bookends: the generative act that creates it, and the inevitability of its conclusion. Sex and Death is a group of 20 stories from writers as diverse as Kevin Barry, Ali Smith, Wells Tower, Taiye Selasi and Damon Galgut, all of them riffing on one or the other of the titular subjects. Or, in the pair of Canadian entries, both of them simultaneously.

Lynn Coady takes an elliptical approach in Fin, which tracks the dissolution of a relationship between a woman and her ex-partner, a teacher. Typical of Coady, the story adopts a scabrous tone, which comes through most clearly in the interactions between the protagonist, a manuscript coach named Lynn, and Nancy, a client who has produced a story called Meat Hammer. Nancy's piece – the only thing she has ever written – is a violent wish-fulfillment fantasy about a woman who murders her cheating husband with a Farberware meat tenderizer (Nancy insists on specifying the precise make of the murder weapon). Coady's metafictional gambit pays off: It is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and an ironic debasement of the story's main plot.

By contrast, there isn't much to laugh at in Alexander MacLeod's entry, The Closing Date, about a couple and their daughter who spend the night before taking possession of their new house in a cheap roadside motel. While there, they encounter the man in the adjoining room, who, unbeknownst to them at the time, is a serial killer.

MacLeod's almost unbearably creepy story conflates the anthology's dual subjects in perhaps the most explicit manner of any of the pieces on offer: The husband and his heavily pregnant wife have sex in the room where their daughter lies fast asleep, while the murderer plies his trade in the room next door. Gaudy and audacious, it would be easy for MacLeod's story to tip over into exploitation; it is a testament to the author's skill and sensitivity that he manages to avoid this. The Closing Date is one of the best stories in Sex and Death, from one of this country's most exciting new writers of short fiction.

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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