Sheila McClarty (Fred Elcheshen)
Sheila McClarty's book of short stories, High Speed Crow, is one of those rare collections that I did not want to stop reading. Half-way in, I was looking sorrowfully at the remaining pages - wishing there were more pages, more stories. Truthfully, McClarty had me on the first word of the first sentence of the first story. "There." - she writes, and I was hooked. The irresistible pull of McClarty's narratives and her characters is amazing.
A woman who finds herself engaged in theft for the first time in her life in "Stolen." A quartet of characters brilliantly serpentined together in a surprising story of grace, violence and redemption in "A German Shepherd, a Natural Redhead and a Yellow Scarf." Two couples celebrating an anniversary - one couple separated and the other, still married but even more separated in "Never a Kind Word." A man in a gunfight with the image of Clint Eastwood on a television, in a losing battle with an addiction to booze and on the cusp of losing everything in "Mel."
To try and recommend one story over the next is simply impossible. McClarty writes with such a fulfilled undercurrent that having finished one of her stories, I needed a sorbet. I needed to breathe and walk, or do something else for a while . I could not begin another story right away. Her stories not only linger, they're so good that they demand space. This is no easy feat.
Sometimes, I will finish a hefty novel and not quite have a firm grasp on its main character - she'll still be hazy, regardless of how careful I'd read. With McClarty's stories, she draws the most complete characters with only a few careful words, a couple lines of dialogue, a small thought, a throwaway memory.
Dr. Earhardt leans back into the softness of his leather chair. He has developed a fondness for all three of his therapy patients. Tanya, the woman who has it all, yet in middle age, without warning, her unconscious mind dredges up a childhood trauma. To deny herself the purchase of the yellow scarf, Dr. Earhardt believes is a symbolic penance for her good fortune in being the child who survived while her best friend was killed by a car careening onto the sidewalk.
Vain Louise is the most complex member of the group, the one whose fear of elevators masks her resentment of caring for her sick mother.
Then there is poor little Eleanor, racked with continuous anxiety and saddled with a cruel husband and his German Shepherds.
I read, and re-read "A German Shepherd, a Natural Redhead and a Yellow Scarf" and I still don't know how she does it. These characters are bursting off the page with life, and yet they are presented with such ease and assuredness. And these very different lives are woven together with matter-of-fact simplicity. In two of these stories McClarty uses a shifting point of view so that we are experiencing the story through different eyes and minds and hearts. The result is a clever depth, lies revealed, and lives interwoven.
Look, it's about this time in most reviews that the negative will make an appearance. This writing is not perfect, but "perfect" is not the goal. I can't speak for McClarty but if the goal is to present stories that take your breath away with their melancholy, or heartache, or quiet epiphanies, then this book is a grand success. The writing is seamless and the characters' voices are human and humane. They manage to wiggle into your mind and heart and once inside, they are devastatingly beautiful. I cannot find fault with this writing. It's invisible when it needs to be and is gorgeous and surprising when it wants to be.
Okay, here's the thing that didn't work for me: I wasn't exactly thrilled to pick this book up when it came in the mail. Why, Trofimuk? you might be asking. Well, let me tell you why. While the paper is beautiful and the design of the inside text is careful and even exquisite, the cover is hideously ugly. Apparently, it's the image of a Paul Gauguin painting. It looks like a photocopy of an image that was transported into a design program and then someone cut around the outline of the woman and pasted it onto the cover. This dull image may be a Paul Gauguin, but it is also a profound antithesis to the bursting-with-colour lives and stories inside. Shame on Oberon for putting a cover this ugly on a collection of stories that is quite simply dazzling. (Note to Oberon: If you want potential readers to pick one of your books off a shelf, you're going to have to do better on the design front.)
Listen, forget the tags Winnipeg writer, or Canadian writer; McClarty is just a damn fine writer. And (please) forget the insipid and uninspired cover of this book - the stories inside more than make up for its appearance and at the end of the day, that's all that matters. Sheila McClarty is wow! Highly recommended.
McClarty's book won the 2011 Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book at the Manitoba Book Awards in April.
Thomas Trofimuk's last novel, Waiting For Columbus, has been published in numerous countries and is nominated for the 2011 IMPAC Dublin literary award. He lives in Edmonton.
Written by Thomas Trofimuk for
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