More than a decade has passed since the release of Kelli Deeth's critically acclaimed The Girl Without Anyone. Set in a middle-class Toronto suburb, the collection of connected stories followed Leah, a young teen of recently divorced parents who are too self-involved to notice their daughter's need for attention. After dropping out of school, Leah engages in high-risk behaviour, seeking love in all the wrong places. This highly realistic collection showcased Deeth's ability to write taut, compelling fiction about someone as familiar as the girl at the mall, or the girl next door.
Deeth's latest collection of short stories, The Other Side of Youth, is far more ambitious and even more intense. Set entirely in and around Toronto, the stories focus on life-changing events, serving up highly plausible yet often unsettling outcomes – the other side of personal issues that often go unseen. The female protagonists in the 11 tales range in age from their early teens to their late 30s. Each struggles with the life-choices she has made and their inherent consequences.
Picking up a theme from The Girl Without Anyone, Deeth writes convincingly about the vagaries of adolescent longing. Using simple prose, the Toronto-based writer delivers powerful narratives that are both alarming and realistic. In End of Summer, 13-year-old Sandra, grieving the loss of her brother, is repeatedly drawn to a field where girls are rumoured to be assaulted. In Correct Caller, one of several exceptional tales in this collection, 16-year-old Michelle sets out to distance herself from her embittered mother and prove that she can take care of herself. Landing a job over the phone, the 16-year-old is unfortunately hired by exactly the type of man her mother has warned her about, inadvertently putting herself in harm's way. In A Boy's Hand, adolescent Tanya seeks affection from an unstable boy, even after he is openly hostile toward her. In the end, he threatens her with his father's hunting rifle. In the conclusion of this disquieting tale, Deeth brilliantly taps into the traumatized girl's mind: "… because it was a gun and it was pointed at me, it had gotten inside. Things that were on the inside never got out. They found a place to live, and when you closed your eyes, they showed themselves."
Many of the exceptional stories in this collection deal with difficult choices related to motherhood. In The Things They Said, Courtney is reaching the end of her child-bearing years, and although she and Michael have decided not to have children because of their own dysfunctional childhoods, Courtney still feels that something is not right, regardless of what they tell each other. In Ari, Jana is unable to carry a child to term, and her otherwise loving relationship with Peter begins to disintegrate. Peter longs for a daughter like his niece Ari. The centrepiece, however, is the very moving Vera's Room. The narrator and her husband, Andrew, adopt seven-year-old Vera, a foster child. Despite the couple's decision, the narrator's mothering instinct does not kick in. Vera senses this and rebels against her new mother. For the narrator, Vera is not the child she thought they would have. To make matters worse, Andrew is a natural father who reminds his wife that "it's not all about her."
The Other Side of Youth is a series of finely honed short stories, the kind that linger in the mind well after the book is finished. The extremely rich subject matter and the author's ability to write satisfying endings could well be the reasons for this. Deeth is a great writer of short fiction, and The Other Side of Youth is the best collection of short stories I have read in recent memory. It was well worth the 12-year wait.
Heather Leighton is the Literary Editor of Rover Arts in Montreal.