Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear. Mother Tongue
Death Sentences. University of Ottawa Press
Julia Leggett’s short story collection Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, 2014, plays with readers’ senses and skilfully and imaginatively belies their best efforts at plot intuition. What seems mundane can become uncanny; what’s uncanny can turn out to be comforting; what was comforting can swiftly become suffocating and dangerous. It is at once simple and strange, delicate and hard to take, disturbing and beautiful. The stories are thought-provoking in their critique of modern-day ills such as diet pills, divorce, and cancer, but the force of this collection resides in the slightly magical and metaphysical undercurrents. “Into the Blue,” for example, is stunning and masterful in its depiction of what it feels like to die: “you catch glimpses: the skin on the inside of your mother’s wrist, the taste of your own mouth in the morning, the sensation of laughing.” “Lena Reynolds Gets Divorced” reminds us that otherworldly activities can still take us away from our tenuous and basic earthly relationships. “Versus Heart” underscores what is most intimidating about being with another person, falling, or disappearing in a relationship: “I had a rule, it was don’t fall in love. Most people heard that as if the emphasis was on love, but the part that was really important was the falling. Don’t fall. Rappel down with a safety harness. Tell someone where you are going. Take extra water.” The female narrative voices divulge how they each come to terms with decisions that negate their need for love and tranquility out of fear and angst or how they reason failure and pain to keep the peace in a relationship. Each story is connected by the fragility and vulnerability of the human body that can be beaten, broken, and is constantly besieged by our expectations of what it can endure. In short, it’s about all the ways we choose to nurture or cease to nurture something crucial to our literal, emotional, or spiritual survival. In her first collection, Leggett skilfully outlines the fractured relationship between self and other, the body and the mind, all the while intertwining a quiet sense of joy and delight in the ephemeral nature of our problems and our lives. It is a funny, thoughtful, odd and enchanting collection that I will surely pick up again.
Death Sentences, published in 2014, is the long-awaited translation of Suzanne Myre’s 2007 short story collection Mises à mort. As the title aptly shows, the dual meanings the author wove into the intricacies of language transcend from the French to the English version. Each sentence does indeed lead the reader a step closer to some impending doom or gloom, whether it be the murder of a dog or cat, a literal or metaphysical death or, to la petite mort, as they say, that moment of ecstasy that brings us one step closer to the experience of death. Thanks to the intuitive interpretations of the collection’s translator, Cassidy Hildebrand, the intensely sarcastic and overtly candid narrative voices Myre created maintain their authenticity in the translation. It is these voices that keep the reader deeply entranced by the morbid and intriguing plotlines. The collection begins with “Vile City,” a short story that sets the tone for a plethora of conflicting emotions that effect the most lonely and dejected: “The city pulses from every pore; possessed by couples, they’re everywhere, entwined, in restaurants, in theatres, on patios. It’s impossible to go out alone in a public place without feeling pathetic, like a nobody, a reject.” Jealously, resentment and bitterness that come from a voyeuristic obsession with other people’s happiness is described with wry humour. Distressing and unsettling stories of geriatric care and end-of-life preoccupations are followed by confusing and enthralling tales of coming-of-age. “Bitter Ashes” is an evocative, unnerving story about the loss of a parent: Mrye’s depiction of the many facets of grief in this story is forceful and memorable. Death, existential crises and modern-day weariness are the recurrent threads that bind together the collection; it seems the characters’ are destined to claw away at some forever-buried, gnawing truths. The only small hiccup in this otherwise darkly delightful collection is the preface, which gives a little too much away and answers questions the reader would have been all the more pleased to figure out for him or herself. It offers an interesting take on the collection that is best read afterward.