One thing is definite about Toronto’s Tightrope Books: they know a good short story when they see one. In 2016, they published Danila Botha’s excellent collection of short stories For All of the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known which met with great success. Now I have just finished reading two more fine collections, Barry Dempster’s Tread & Other Stories and Rebecca Higgins’ The Colours of Birds. Both books contained some great stories, so I decided to review them together. First, Tread & Other Stories.
Tread & Other Stories
Barry Dempster might be best known for his many award-winning works of poetry and literature (he was twice nominated for a Governor General’s Award) and his award-winning 2014 novel The Outside World. Tread & Other Stories was my first introduction to Mr. Dempster, so I was curious as to how he handles the short story format. I so enjoyed Mr. Dempster’s writing style and his character creation (and the situations that confront thme) that I would like to read more of his back catalogue.
It was difficult to pick out a few stories to highlight, so here are two that I particularly enjoyed:
Who? Am I? is the story of a man looking for his birth mother. I’m sure most, if not all persons, upon discovering they are adopted wonder why? So does Kevin:
At first, all he could think of was why? Had his mother been shamed by a religious family, or was she living a post-sixties, no-strings-attached life where a baby would be a drag or was it simply a case of not being ready: no money, no partner, no hope?
When a woman mysteriously approaches him and tells him that she may have given birth to him, Kevin is unnerved. She gives very few details and is even reluctant to give her full name lest they get too involved. Eventually, he gets her name and tracks her down to a cemetery that she visits regularly. A man working at the cemetery directs him to Chestnut Lane:
It sounded like he was going to a bungalow rather than a gravesite. He thought of lawn chairs and an unfamiliar family – grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, perhaps even brothers and sisters – sitting around a circle of tombstones, chatting with each other and the dead.
Half a Man is the story of a couple, Charlie and Nessa, who from their wedding day, seem to be a perfectly matched couple, although they are both very different. In their later years, a stroke leaves Charlie ‘half a man’ with one side of his body paralyzed. While Charlie is discouraged, angry and depressed, Nessa continues to care for him, and he thinks of their wedding vow: “in sickness and in health:”
So this was sickness, he thought. This was what a vow looked like after thirty years of knowing it was there but thinking it might never have to be used. It was like a backup generator in case the power went out.
These two stories are representative of the other thirteen in Tread & Other Stories. There are young people, older ones, some living aimless lives until something or someone awakens some unseen meaning in their lives. The Red-Framed Glasses is an incredibly told story of a young man who drinks too much, blacks out and awakens in a woman’s apartment. Shamed, he leaves and never sees her again. Later he wonders if he raped her. Then somewhat humorous is the story of a female prison guard who likes bad boys (“Bad Boys”). All of Mr. Dempster’s stories are very real; the people as well as the scenarios of each tale. As such, they make for some very good reading.
“Barry Dempster writes stories of the everyday that are not everyday stories. They release depth charges of feeling, unease, and strangeness too powerful for that. They take us to places we’ve known but never so vividly.” —Greg Hollingshead, author of Act Normal and Bedlam
The Colours of Birds
The Colours of Birds is Rebecca Higgins’ first book of short stories, and its pages contain a varied collection of approaches to creative fiction, slightly different from Tread, but with the same familiar types of protagonists that we may encounter (or have encountered) in daily life. There are twenty-three short works here, some of just a page, others only slightly longer. One of the first stories is Sensitive, in which Olive, a single woman, is mirrored in Mim, her mimosa pudica plant (from Latin: pudica “shy, bashful or shrinking”; also called sensitive plant, shy plant) that she was misguidedly told was easy to care for. Olive doesn’t watch the news (“it makes her feel very stressed out”) or engage in any discussion of current events, folding up and withdrawing like Mim’s leaves when touched. She is reluctant to have her sister Harriet visit with her two-year-old son Jake. Jake is loud, and always yelling and banging into things, which upsets Olive. She also fears for Mim around Jake, as you can well imagine:
Behind him [Jake], near the window, Mim’s leaves are closed even though it’s the middle of the day. Olive doesn’t blame her.
Charlene at Lunchtime continues with the sensitive theme, this time in an office setting where Charlene will eat her lunch in the bathroom once the lunch table talk turns to “what comes out of pets and kids.” She is OCD (she likes to line her pens up on the desk, which she finds relaxing) and decides for the office Christmas exchange to make a Gingerbread House for Jerry, a co-worker even though she didn’t draw his name. She meticulously constructs the house, including melted blue Jolly Ranchers for the stream behind the house. She is sure Jerry will like it. He just has to. The outcome is surprising!
This is a charming, unsettling, and splendid debut.” —Jessica Westhead, author of Things Not to Do and And Also Sharks
Tightrope Books has a propensity for publishing good short story books (as I write this, Aaron Kreuter’s You and Me, Belonging is on my TBR stack) and the above two are no exception. Lovers of the short story genre will undoubtedly these two titles, as I indeed have.
Tread & Other Stories by Barry Dempster
The Colours of Birds by Rebecca Higgins
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