Half-Sisters & Other Stories by Ryan Turner

Family matters dominate Ryan Turner’s exceptional collection of short fiction, Half-Sisters & Other Stories. The characters in these dramatically subtle, psychologically probing stories are often coping with or reacting to tragic or unhappy events—separation, estrangement, sudden death—and are compelled by circumstance to re-connect in tentative or awkward fashion with family members with whom they may have had little contact and who are largely unknown to them.

In the first story, “Unusual Facts of Canadian History,” young Ben recalls the summer he lived in his grandmother’s house in New Brunswick. Ben’s life is unsettled because his mother has left him and his father and moved to Halifax. In sparkling prose, Turner describes Ben’s attempts to impose structure on long, empty summer days and his search for comfort and meaning in the eccentric behaviour of the largely unreliable adults with whom he is living.

The title story recounts a tension-filled family dynamic. Cora’s mother has died, and she finds herself in the position of having to reach out to Louisa, a half-sister with whom she has been out of touch for years—the offspring of her father and his second wife. In the end, however, Cora’s initial reluctance to make contact with a young woman with whom she shares a father but nothing else has begun to transform into a warm sensation of gratitude when she realizes that this new connection has the potential to enrich her life in ways she wasn’t anticipating.

And in “Moving,” Theo’s mother has died, and he and his grandmother (who had been living with her late daughter) are travelling by train from New Brunswick to Halifax, where his grandmother will move in with him and his girlfriend.

“Ryan Turner has written a series of poignant but unsentimental stories using language that is understated and elegant.”

In this volume, Ryan Turner writes about lives in transition while evoking a prevailing mood steeped in melancholy nostalgia. The world of these stories is one in which an unforeseen incident can signal the permanent disruption of familiar routines, and where people are often left facing an uncertain future. For Turner’s characters, circumstances are always shifting, pieces are constantly moving around, people and things are being left behind. Even the prospect of change can cause characters to act in surprising ways: in “The Poet” (with its northern Russian setting this story is the clear outlier of the collection), the commander of a prison camp, where non-conformists serve their time in exile, knows his own life will be diminished if his favourite prisoner, Volotsky, the poet, is allowed to go free when his sentence expires and selfishly ensures that Volotsky’s punishment is extended.

In this, his second collection (after the superb linked collection What We’re Made Of , published in 2009) Ryan Turner has written a series of poignant but unsentimental stories using language that is understated and elegant. Throughout this volume, Turner’s writing is assured, mature and, in this age of excess, refreshingly economical. Fans of the contemporary short story will find much to enjoy and admire in these pages. Half-Sisters and Other Stories is going on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Short Fiction.

About the author: Ryan Turner’s fiction has appeared in various journals including Prairie Fire and The New Quarterly. His first collection, What We’re Made Of, was shortlisted for the ReLit Award in 2010. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Half-Sisters & Other Stories by Ryan Turner
Gaspereau Press

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Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in Event, Grain, Riddle Fence, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead and other literary publications. His previous books are Evidence, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, Perfect World and The Dark House and Other Stories. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Relit Award, the Journey Prize, and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. He lives in Halifax.

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Lee D. Thompson
10 months ago

It’s an age of excess? I must need to get out more… though I think I’ll wait on that. Great review. Remember reading with Ryan (and Chad Pelley) in Halifax about a decade ago.

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