Myrl Coulter is not much interested in specific places; indeed, the settings of these stories and the novella which several of the stories comprise are identifiable as Canadian only by their use of the occasional place name, from Kamloops to Prince Edward Island, used to suggest possible destinations rather than real settings. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; what interests Coulter is families, and the endlessly paradoxical combinations of love and resentment, security and entrapment, which families offer. Some of the stories are connected by their characters, and the novella, “Limbo,” consists of a series of stories about the same family.
Alcoholism, adultery, abuse, parental abandonment, trips into an uncertain future, suicide, secrecy, car crashes, sibling alienation—these are the stock-in-trade of Coulter’s families. And yet sometimes these unhappy circumstances do get resolved, and when they do, it is almost always because, in spite of everything, families can also provide support and love. It doesn’t happen always—Coulter is not as sunny and cheerful as that—but sometimes. In the first story, “Grad School,” Patsy’s family gathers to celebrate her university graduation, but the celebration is spoiled by her parents’ announcement that they’re splitting up. Thrust into an unexpectedly bad employment market, Patsy is rescued by her uncle, who finds her a job, and then, when a second job lands her in the sinister company of gangsters, he rescues her again. There’s an occasional Gothic frisson—in “Uncanny,” Emily is haunted by the ghost of her grandfather, and in “Limbo,” an eighteen-year-old suicide retains a voice in the story for a generation, until the circumstances of his death are finally brought to light.
As the title of Jasmina Odor’s collection suggests, almost everybody in her world is excluded or out of place. Several of her characters are immigrants to Canada, and those who return to Croatia find they do not belong there. Places matter in these stories, as do the sensuous details of the houses and apartments people live in, the foods they eat and where they eat them, the complexities of their relationships. In the title story, Ivona refuses to let her recently arrived in-laws stay in the apartment she and her husband share. In “Board of Perfect Pine,” a woman at a family party retreats to the bathroom with an older man, and discovers that she does not regret the breach she has thus opened between her and her current boyfriend. In “Ninety-nine Percent of It” (a title which implies the inevitability of imperfection), Jonathan breaks up with Tatiana, takes up with Shannon, and discovers he’d rather be with Tatiana after all—and at the end of the story they are together again. This sounds like the ending of a romantic comedy, except that when Jonathan says, “I just want you to be happy,” Tatiana shrugs, “I am resigned to my fate.” Whatever that may be, it isn’t comedy.
The melancholy weight of time is one of the burdens of these haunting and painful stories, most clearly articulated in “Skin Like Almonds,” where two Canadian women are on holiday on the Adriatic coast, with the reverberations of the Bosnian war sounding faintly and menacingly in the distance. In early August, “we began to feel a creeping fear of the end [of our holiday]. It was a paralysis, like turning twenty-five.” Summer ends, youth ends, possibilities are closed off. Years later, with middle age closing in, the narrator yearns for something of that summer when they were “on the verge of being no longer young.” In the linked stories “Peanuts” and “Barcelona,” beautiful Amanda succumbs to depression; she tries to escape to Barcelona, but once there, she sees that “whatever she has begun by coming here, and whether it ends with life or death, this is only the beginning of it, and it will get much worse, before it ends, one way or the other.” This is bleak, but it isn’t the end; back in Canada, Amanda’s mother bakes buns to cheer up Amanda’s bereft boyfriend. That’s not much, but it’s something. And it’s all we’re going to get by way of a happy ending.