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The Journey Prize Stories

Edited by James Grainger

and Nancy Lee

McClelland & Stewart,

190 pages, $17.99

The annual Journey Prize anthology selects the year's best fiction from Canadian literary magazines and later awards one the $10,000 Writers' Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. Now in its 17th edition, the series boasts Yann Martel, Lisa Moore, Douglas Glover, Charlotte Gill, Timothy Taylor and M. G. Vassanji among past contributors.

Half of these 14 varied stories truly compete for one's attention (and, one hopes, the enabling prize), and all but one involve the myriad trials of romantic love. Most courageous is Neil Smith's Scrapbook, which uses the pressures of a campus shooting (suggestive of the 1989 massacre at Université de Montréal) to test the limits of a young couple's relationship.

Smith, an alumnus of two previous Journey Prize anthologies and Coming Attractions '04, wisely avoids sweeping social condemnation or diffuse commentary, finding instead all the relevant and necessary fears, inadequacies and impatience in the growing strain of a young man who fled the shootings, and his worried, impatient and sometimes nervous female partner. Smith's numerous talents collapse the distance between maniacal violence and the insecurities and inadequacies beneath the surface of daily life.

Equally impressive, and also devoted to love and loss, is Emily White's Various Metals. Mined again here is the always fecund material of a thirtysomething woman without a man, drowning in the unwanted romantic advice of her (divorced) parents, her friends, her customers and of, well, anyone who sees her.

This tender, knowing story seductively flashes its plot of unexpected seduction with just the right pace, camouflaging its more ambitious emotions as care or attention one minute, then revealing an awkward advance the next. Humour and a good eye for physical detail take us toward the story's tender, wise conclusion.

Filial collisions and the bursts and contractions of the romantic heart also surface in Krista Bridge's lively and dynamic A Matter of Firsts. Capitalizing on the simultaneous distance and intimacy of second-person narration ("Your father's New York mistress was the one you met"), Bridge brilliantly captures the kind of non-consummated crush an adolescent girl can have for an older, wiser woman, while simultaneously initiating her young heroine into the yearnings and hypocrisies of an adult's romantic life.

Very different stories from Craig Davidson and Matt Shaw both make impressive use of voice, albeit with mixed success. Davidson's alcoholic narrator intriguingly confesses, "Okay, yeah, I'll cop to hoisting a few," but the story itself descends into a predictable and limited terrain of booze glorification (it cites Charles Bukowski repeatedly) and media angst. Matt Shaw's Matchbook for a Mother's Hair confronts the reader thematically with a tale of a mother abusing her developmentally challenged adolescent son, and again stylistically with the decision to narrate that abuse through the son's limited perception.

While Shaw's is undoubtedly the most technically ambitious story ("Her lighter was the colour of a fire engine like my chair"), its focus on technique limits how much and how deeply the story can evolve.

The less successful stories generally fail due to sins of selection, either within the anthology as a whole or within each story. Two stories are probably included for subject, not execution (or wisdom, or inventive language).

In one, the potentially explosive combination of three generations of women trying to live under one roof fizzles out in a formless sea of domestic details. Undirected detail also derails two stories that frankly confuse research with storytelling, parading, in one case, the unshaped facts and observations of a girl's school trip and, in another, an ill-fitting string of historical details that attempts to translate the life of architect Le Corbusier into (a) fiction and (b) short fiction.

Two (mercifully short) stories from younger journals seem selected solely to add urban grit to the collection. The annual anthology's new and regrettable inclusion of artist's statements about each story self-destructs entirely with the entries for these two non-narrative language events, and for the stories begun with homework, not heart. At its best, this anthology and its predecessors know that a good story explains itself.

More prudently devoted to the timeless narrative rewards of the fickle human heart are the honest and confident stories of Edward O'Connor and Pasha Malla. Vanity and ambition pervade the former, while the bittersweet mixture of loss and humour bubbles through the latter.

Tomorrow's short lists for the Giller and the Governor-General's prizes invariably start with today's Journey Prize Stories.

Darryl Whetter is the author of A Sharp Tooth in the Fur, and a former professor of creative writing and English. His most recent story will appear in 05: Best Canadian Stories.