A few years ago, when I entered a small, darkened room to view Leonardo Da Vinci's famous The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, at London's National Gallery, I was virtually stopped in my tracks. I'd never before experienced the power a great painting can emanate, or imagined how it might affect one both physically and emotionally. This, I learned that landmark day, is what art can do.
I'd not felt that breathtaking jolt - how else to describe it? - again, until this week. The source this time: literature. A book. A first book, titled The Old Familiar. Something that can be purchased for under $20 and held in the hands.
I remain amazed.
The Old Familiar is a short-story collection by Kelowna, B.C., writer Alix Hawley, and I love everything about it. I love the cover, in which the author's grandfather appears - or half appears - before Stonehenge.
I love the fact that it's a debut book. I love that the acknowledgments page does not pretentiously list literary journals these stories have appeared in. And I especially love the work within. "Genius" is a word I hesitate to use in a review; Hawley's work requires it.
As crafting short fiction goes, I believe the true luminary is the writer who delivers a book of startlingly eclectic stories: multigenerational protagonists of both genders; situations both incredible and ones we've lived ourselves; varied and interesting settings; crackling dialogue.
The greats pay intimate attention to language and structure. They understand the psychology of relationships (familial and otherwise), can surreptitiously induce laughter or tears and incite all emotions in between. They set the pacing just right; offer insights to which one believes only he or she was privy (how'd she get into my mind?); and fashion endings that resonate like music, like poetry, like secrets and memories. Hawley manages all this and more.
In these 13 virtuosic stories, this young writer - I did a double take when I read her birth date - introduces a treasury of unforgettable characters, such as the empathetic and popular unmarried man in They Call Her Lovely Rita. He's invited to parties, women consistently make advances, work's fine. "Whenever he has to catch a bus, it's right on time," Hawley writes. What a succinct and intelligent way to sum up a character's experience.
The protagonist's life, then, is essentially good. Except it's not. He "chronically" dreams he's married and committing adultery, and he's addicted to teen television dramas. (He'll watch an entire DVD boxed set in one sitting.) Like other characters in the collection, this guy seems overwhelmed by the responsibility of living.
The central character in Chemical Wedding, the book's powerhouse opener, has also enjoyed a charmed life, yet she casts a sardonic eye on everything when she and her husband are invited to dinner at the home of an old high school acquaintance turned deliriously happy homemaker. "The pictures are in two rows, kids' school photographs. The two kids in them develop alarmingly from left to right. You wouldn't have been able to predict the buck teeth, the spreading ears, in the first kindergarten photos."
In this piece, we get our first glimpse at Hawley's uncanny talent for writing about food. Pickles are "shiny, glandular." There are "Big, bald new potatoes with mint patchery … chicken in seared skin. Monster peas …" The protagonist "parallel-park[s]the croutons." (In later stories, there is " a scab of roast potato" and "a wodge of pie." A culinary failure results in pastry pinwheels that resemble swastikas.)
Free To Good Home concerns a slightly neurotic woman and the completely sane man she falls for: the operator of a pet cremation service. "Animals loved him."
Romance is a lake story about a teenaged boy hired to be the friend/babysitter of young triplets, one of whom - the girl - has a deformity: "One of her eyes looked as though it were starting to run down her face, like an egg."
Another story's written from the perspective of a camp counsellor who "wasn't really a camp person." There's a nursing-home account (that ending!), and in the title piece, Hawley writes so convincingly of Alzheimer's disease that it's actually haunting.
A word about endings: What delicate creatures they are. So easy to say too much, or screw the timing. But Hawley's got poetry happening here, in her final lines - where it really counts - story after story.
Great fiction changes us. Read Alix Hawley. Lightning, or something like it, strikes.
Shelley A. Leedahl's latest book is The House of the Easily Amused. She lives in Middle Lake, Sask.