It only takes a few sentences' worth of the first story in Billie Livingston's collection, Greedy Little Eyes, to trigger that wonderful feeling that comes when you know you're about to have a really cool reading experience. This collection is like a tray of treats that you can have one at a time, or gobble up all at once. It'll be right up your literary alley, too, if you like things a little nutty.
There's a lot of strange behaviour going on in this collection, some of it unpleasant. There are murders (at least two), a suicide, an unjust accusation of incest and the child kidnapping of an utterly-complicit child. The Vancouver settings provide opportunities for grimness: Even the Pickton murders are used as a backdrop to one of the tales, although the story itself takes place largely at a luxury hotel suite in New York City. Did You Grow Up With Money? depicts the horrors of sexual abuse and the victims' gruesome revenge, but the abuser's violent end unfolds with gracefulness, almost like a dance. "It seemed like someone should fall in love right now," observes the narrator, as the abuser (spoiler alert!) bleeds to death. Such a lovely line, embedded in a scene of quietly related mayhem, is typical of Livingston's style.
Livingston also has an uncanny talent for setting. A busy streetscape, a country drive, a coffee shop, a backwoods cabin: All are realized with the precision and immediacy of a snapshot. There is no mental fumbling in the reader's mind, trying to get the idea of the what-and-where. She evokes a particular summer in New York by focusing on the "Chinese net slippers" that the women wore that year; she recreates the atmosphere of a borrowed room in the Waldorf by pointing out the hands - "all vein and bone" - of the room-service waiter, "who looked as though he'd been working here since 1931." She deftly takes us along a road to a remote log cabin, the setting for much of Before I Would Ever Hurt You, by recounting the "skunk stripe of green" down its middle. Once in that cabin, we feel as isolated - and edgy - as its doomed occupants.
She doesn't tie up her tales at the end with a nice ribbon-and-bow effect
But it is not enough just to give a story a good sense of place and a beautiful style. Livingston's voice has an intense intimacy that evokes a level of trust, almost confession. She leaves the impression that the stories are being told to us one-to-one, over coffee, perhaps, when the terrible event is over and there is a compulsion to get the story out. This effect is in part created by the use of the first person, but not all first-person narratives achieve (or seek to achieve) this end. Livingston's calm, honest and funny delivery draws the reader close to her narrators, leaving us begging her to please go on, to tell us more.
That delivery, in that voice, prevents the randomness and chaos of many of the events in the tales from generating disbelief in the reader. That a mother would kidnap her daughter's friend and drive with her to Las Vegas so they could become showgirls, for instance, might seem a bit News of the World. But in Livingston's story You're Taking All the Fun Out of It, there is not even the sense of it having been such a bad idea. The wayward mother - once censured by her preteen daughter for looking like "some big-haired Kitten With a Whip - even ends up co-opting our sympathy. She talks of the degree she earned in prison, and how she hopes the daughter will look her up in the phonebook some day. Everyone in Livingston's stories gets fair treatment, even when the narrator seems to be passing heavy judgment.
Some readers may have an issue with Livingston's rejection of traditional closure: She doesn't tie up her tales at the end with a nice ribbon-and-bow effect, with the moral of the story closing the narrative door firmly. Instead, her stories seem to drift off naturally, almost organically. But while such endings are not to everyone's taste, these soft landings fit the style of the pieces, and give an air of sanity to some downright insane factual narratives. To corral the mad characters (and the even madder events) would be an artificial device, robbing the stories of their truth and vitality. It adds to the emotional strength of the tales to be left with the sense that everyone in them is alive, and continuing on without us readers.
Although the families in these tales are dysfunctional - the mothers are mad, the uncles are funny, the brothers carry bitter secrets around with them like filthy security blankets - their tales are recounted with an unjudging gaze and a nifty and original humour. This collection of truly unusual treats is sure to satisfy anyone with an appetite for a good story. Kudos to Livingston for passing it our way.
Diane Baker Mason is the author of Last Summer At Barebones and Men With Brooms.