The main action of Megan Gail Coles’ debut novel takes place in St. John’s, NFLD, on a single day—February 14, Valentine’s Day—as a blizzard threatens the city. The setting is a fashionable downtown restaurant called the Hazel, which caters to a varied clientele: politicians, snobbish business types, couples willing to splurge on a special-occasion dinner. The characters are restaurant staff and patrons, their relatives, friends and acquaintances.
The setting may seem commonplace, even familiar, and the characters—rich, poor and in between—ordinary, but there is nothing ordinary about Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club or the anguished tale it tells. The multi-faceted story revolves around a love triangle. Georgina (George) is the owner of the Hazel, her husband John the talented and charmingly manipulative chef, and Iris the browbeaten, emotionally vulnerable hostess. Iris and John are lovers. Other major characters are Damien, a server (who also works the front desk of a nearby hotel), who is nursing a hangover, and who witnesses things but because of his subservient position is nearly invisible. And Olive, a young woman, a friend of Iris, who has been subject to a harrowing act of sexual violence and as a result has withdrawn from those, like Iris, who care for her, and who observes what occurs from her position as an outsider. The affair between John and Iris drives much of the action, but by the time we meet these people, the web of lies and deceit has spread its pernicious influence so far and wide that everyone is caught up in it to varying degrees. Coles narrates her novel from multiple perspectives, allowing each character space to provide their own backstory and describe his or her own version of events leading up to a somewhat chaotic and near-tragic denouement.To say that Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is not an easy read is a laughable understatement. In each section, the reader is submerged within a single character’s consciousness, seeing the city, the surroundings, other people, and feeling the confusion and pain of being alive, from that person’s perspective. Playing a lead role in the sordid goings-on is the power dynamic between men and women. John’s is the most prominent male perspective in the novel, and it is a simple one: concerned with little else besides satisfying his own appetites, justifying his actions to himself, and keeping his affairs secret. John is an archetypal villain of the Me Too era. Charismatic and calculating, he uses a position of authority, physical allure, and the magnetism of his personality to exploit women and get what he wants from them. Because of his narcissism, he is unable to see his cruelty toward Iris for what it is because he has either convinced himself or actually believes, that he is bestowing upon her a precious gift: the opportunity to give him pleasure. He is oblivious to the damage he causes and the suffering he leaves in his wake.
Make no mistake, this is a powerful novel: uninhibited and uncompromising. It is without a doubt the product of fierce and probing intelligence. Its morality is righteous and the truths it reveals unambiguous and unflattering to a society that protects the privileged and throws the vulnerable under the bus. It is dazzling in its complexity and formidable in its craft. What’s more, the story that Coles has fashioned is emotionally authentic and often heart-rending. The pain depicted in these pages is real. We feel it in our gut. However, the book is also dense and relentless; its tone of moral outrage hardly varies throughout. In the end, it presents a daunting challenge to the reader. The only way to experience what this book has to offer is total immersion: dive in and resist every temptation to come up for air until the last page.
Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles
House of Anansi Press
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