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the daily review, thu., april 12

Alex Leslie

Remember when you learned in school about foreshadowing? In the first words of her debut story collection, Alex Leslie blithely challenges literary propriety with a triple-whammy dose of the ominous. The Coast Is a Road zooms in on two women, lovers, on a storm-lashed remote highway, their car bumping over freshly downed power cables. Their destination: a place called Point No Point. Ghastly weather, potential electrocution, pointlessness – none of it slows our determined travellers.

The road story (part of it on ocean ferries) unrolls like a bolt of cloth patterned with the unnamed narrator's mind pictures. "The snowy road balanced against the side of a dark mountain, the ultrasound image of a bone inside an arm." Weeks of tag-along travel with her journalist girlfriend has left her in a passive but not unpleasant limbo. "[A]other hotel room. Your body on the sheet like paint thrown against a wall that has dripped into the shape of a woman."

It can take a while to twig to Leslie's sometimes extravagant images and analogies. They're not so much poetic depictions of objects and events as glimpses of how the world filters into a psyche, altering to a significance that's deeply personal. Leslie captures the mind's peculiar ways of layering and transforming experience. Her comparisons and metaphors can initially jar, then on reflection they tease out the essence of a moment: On a boat deck, a fierce ocean wind "makes my stomach its windsock."

The long tale meanders, as road stories do, but ends with a surprising punch: a black night, a ship in peril, desperate passengers, aptly cast horses.

Ghost Stories takes us deep into old-growth, logger-threatened B.C. forest with a girl and her bushwhacking uncle. Here Leslie dovetails her evocation of nature's beauty and danger with a subtle and moving lament for its misuse. The fractious affection between gruff wilderness man and snarky tomboy adolescent is especially engaging.

Leslie's prose surges along on enigmatic imagery, rich phrasing, a mild surreal quality. A few stories still feel cursory and first-draftish, yet there are strikingly expressive sentences: "The downpour had vanished upward, leaving gleaming sky like a new skin." "He had the constant smiling of a person who needed to be shown what to do next."

In Like Mind, Laura finds herself moving an old friend into a Vancouver apartment after his three-year absence in Edmonton. It gradually emerges that William has mental health issues that alienated him from his entire Vancouver circle. Leslie assuredly unspools a tale of touching need and an explosive personality testing the limits of friendship and compassion.

The focus of People Who are Michael is entirely image: online videos of a small-town Canadian boy who tours the world with his mom and can draw 20 million views on a single YouTube clip. Michael, the story's Bieber proxy, gets kidnapped, giving the glam and bling of pop celebrity a dramatic edge that Leslie refuses to overplay. Her extended closing clip, of the hostage's hands, is quietly mesmerizing.

In the hormone-charged high school jungle of The Bodies of Others, a blackboard emoticon joke launches a young lesbian's risky courtship. Leslie convincingly inhabits both the surge of half-conscious desire and the bewildering burden of knowing its stigma.

The closing story, Long Way from Nowhere, offers a young girl spirited away by a village of treehouse-dwelling forest activists. Banana, parentless, seems much more to be escaping her coercive and criminal male companion than reflecting the abduction spin of the media. Vaguely implausible, yet not quite fantastical in conception, the story nonetheless generates great charm from the dedication and tender looniness of its tree people.

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