In the Belly of the Whale

Reviewed by Zachary Abram

Anyone who has been to Halifax can attest to the fact that there is no quicker way to bring a gathering of Haligonians together than to intone the opening lines of Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers.” Whether at the Split Crow Pub or a kitchen party, these lines inevitably prompt a singalong that will only cease when the song is over and that poor fisherman makes his way, like an Odysseus of the Maritimes, back to Halifax. While this ersatz sea shanty became an unofficial anthem of Atlantic Canada by hearkening back to a mythic Maritimes, the reality is that Rogers was from Hamilton, Ontario, and he wrote “Barrett’s Privateers” in 1976, a year with distinctly less mythic potential. Two recent collections of short stories, A Bird on Every Tree by Carol Bruneau and Peninsula Sinking by David Huebert, both centre around the Atlantic provinces and parse Maritime myth from reality. Through mastery of place and idiom, Bruneau and Huebert arrive at a representation of the Maritimes that is both modern and genuine. While Bruneau finds grace in the quotidian, Huebert detects malevolence and horror just below what is visible.

The author of four novels and three collections of stories, Bruneau specializes in depicting the considerable pull of home. While not all of the collection’s twelve stories are set in Halifax, the Nova Scotia capital looms large in the characters’ psyches. In that regard, this collection is intensely nostalgic, but in the true etymological sense of the word—a Greek compound of nóstos, meaning “homecoming,” and álgos, meaning “pain.” In “The Race,” Marion, a war bride from Ireland, follows her new husband back to Halifax only to be met with aloofness from his family, exacerbated by his burgeoning post-traumatic stress disorder. In an act that is part spite and part moxie, Marion competes in a swimming race in the Northwest Arm. Throughout the three-mile swim, Bruneau gives voice to Marion’s inner monologue, revealing the confluence of cultural and economic forces that brought her to this place, so far from home. Marion fears drowning but, in her triumph, Bruneau inverts Stevie Smith’s most famous line: Marion is not drowning, but waving, flouting convention to assert her personhood and autonomy. As she improbably finishes the race, she is overcome by her own strength: “Words can’t begin—.”

A Bird on Every Tree is populated with women tapping into deep reservoirs of strength to enact feminist micro-rebellions. In “Doves,” a Nigerian nun resolves to bury a bird for a man she’s just met: “I will bury this bird in the back yard . . . for the good of all children, the seeds of our mission, whether or not they take root.” “Blue Shadows” depicts a nervous new mother whose paranoia appears to stem from her resentment at being thrust into the gendered conventions of motherhood: “How on earth do you ever learn to function without both hands free?” Her anxiety is abated somewhat by allowing a homeless man to hold her baby. Her husband is furious at the gesture, but the new mother is soothed by the dignity she afforded the stranger and is able to see cracks in her husband’s facade of certitude. While the homeless man held the baby “like a flower, a delicate flower, that barely lasts a day,” the husband is only capable of holding his daughter in that “awkward, slightly despairing way men have—some men, I guess I should say.”

At one point in Huebert’s Peninsula Sinking, a character wonders, “[w]as it possible to be crushed gently, squeezed closer and closer until the self dissolved, sweet and painless, in a cold-blooded embrace?” This image rather accurately depicts the experience of reading Huebert’s stories: one does not anticipate being crushed until it is too late. This stunningly assured debut collection is a bestiary where the distinction between human and animal is consistently blurred. Often, Huebert’s stories feel like a challenge to himself. Can anything new be wrung from the most clichéd images and metaphors? The first story literally asks the question about what can be done with a dead horse named Enigma: “how to deal with a half-ton cadaver?” This enigma serves as the terrain for a discussion of how humans’ relationships to animals can border on aspirational. These animals provide a guide for how to live “a life without friction.” While Bruneau’s stories espouse the transcendent potential of acknowledging shared humanity, Huebert reverses the dichotomy: dehumanization is not something to be feared, but something to be welcomed. A prison guard, depressed by a psychosexual infatuation with an inmate, longs for death in the embrace of a pet snake: “The mouse is so lucky to die there, in the midst of all that power, in the steady clutch of this beautiful serpent.” Snake imagery hasn’t been novel since the Bible, but few writers are able to make their readers envy the mouse as it is crushed.

Another well-worn metaphor that Huebert makes new is the whale. The collection’s preoccupation with what’s under the surface is made literal in its depiction of a mourning submariner named Miles. Miles is grieving his mother, who died from a Botox overdose. Miles’ austere German father finds the death to be humiliating, but Miles finds tragedy in his mother’s chemical attempts to freeze time. During a 105-day mission, Miles grows increasingly withdrawn. He takes solace in the infamous Kevin Costner bomb Waterworld because of its portrayal of a protagonist with gills—part human, part animal. Humpback whales occasionally visit the submarine, singing their love songs. Miles identifies a kindred spirit in these creatures who too are lonely and “looking for connection.” In response to the whale song, he can only whisper, not caring if it falls on deaf ears, “I hear you.”

Bruneau’s collection, with its linguistic agility and steadfast compassion, confirms her status as a writer in command of her craft. Huebert’s debut, however, announces the arrival of an exciting new voice that is simultaneously humane and cruel.

This review “In the Belly of the Whale” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 127-128.

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