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Laura Boudreau (Handout)
Laura Boudreau (Handout)

Review: Short Fiction

Whimsy, darkness, comedy, fear Add to ...

In this story collection’s barbed and arresting opener, The Party, Laura Boudreau gambles (not too riskily) that Leonard Cohen fans form a good chunk of her audience.

Smoothly embedded in her rendering of soused, arty urbanites is a tableau of a sad-eyed woman and a man with a guitar. “They are in love, it seems, even though she looks right at him when she sings, ‘Did you ever go clear?’” Catching the Famous Blue Raincoat lyric will give some readers a bonus hit, but vivid character snapshots do the real work.

Strange Pilgrims begins with a familiar but irresistible premise. Ella moves into her first house and in the floor of the attic finds a raccoon nest made largely of torn-up cash. With her we experience the few seconds of stunned speculation, then the rampant tearing up of floorboards to reveal dozens of trash bags stuffed with twenties and fifties. The arrival of hand-addressed mail from Italy for the previous owner, who died in the house, adds weight to the moral dilemma. There’s a whimsical tilt to this tale that doesn’t quite mesh with the tacked-on pathos of its ending, but Boudreau’s deft plotting forms the saving grace.

In The Dead Dad Game, a convalescing Vietnamese pot-bellied pig is the catalyst for a brother and sister to come to terms with an early loss. Whimsy again dovetails with darker sentiments, this time with a keener edge.

A guerrilla comedic sense runs through the book. “Fear is the source of all disease,” says a mother while whipping up kale smoothies for her kids. Poses opens with a giddy riff as two girls mock the ludicrous poses in old porn mags hidden in dad’s woodpile. Pubescent impudence drives this tale forward to an ominous conclusion.

The culture-hopping world travellers of Problem in the Hamburger Room exchange wry judgments on foreign locals, dismissing 79 per cent of New Yorkers and 83 per cent of Parisians as “insane.” Here, satirical caprice runs free, with Boudreau’s arrows fired willy-nilly at lead players and extras, art marketers, airport drones and fashionistas. Playing loose with structure, the story flies on snarky energy.

The fed-up daughter in Hurricane Season flies off on a solo tropical holiday, escaping her carping mom. Moving between bar and beach chair, Mairin’s idling melancholia is somewhat diverted by a decision to join the locals in defence against an approaching storm. Mairin’s inner storms gradually emerge, clinching the story’s impact.

Death is a recurring plot-driver and thematic pivot. Tick, in fact, openly addresses its readers on death’s narrative pitfalls. We observe a battlefield deserter moments before he stops his executioners’ bullets. “If a story is to be a tragedy, it must be of a certain amplitude.” With death just seconds away, we’re told, “You came here to be entertained.” The accusation hits the mark, and of course deflates the tragic amplitude – which hits another mark.

At 27 pages, The Vosmak Genealogy reads like excerpts from a novel in progress stitched skillfully into an overladen story structure. Characters from four generations of a Toronto family unfold in a daughter’s reminiscing voice, the intriguing hook being her mother’s childhood brain injury and the resulting erasure of the power of imagining. Potential is this entry’s strongest attribute.

The Meteorite Hunter opens with a father recalling his child’s birth: “David’s first thought … was that she was dead. She was blue and rubbery, rimed in thick whiteness like a freezer-burned steak.” We fast-forward to daughter Diana at the age of 10, on a rare weekend visit with her father. They drive into the countryside to meet an eccentric collector of space rocks. In the hermit’s isolated cabin they find a long-dead corpse. The tale is strange, subtly constructed, and finally the most moving entry in the book.

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

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