How does a teenager deal with grief? Where do you turn in the aftermath of tragedy? What can ease the shame of a dark secret? Who can help when things feel helpless? In sparse but emotive prose, Chris Benjamin’s collection of short stories, Boy With a Problem, explores these different kinds of difficult. In a mere 150 pages, the pieces move through grief, abuse, lust, oppression, resignation, shame, family tension, and more. Some stories feel like a punch to the gut while others fester under the surface of the skin like a splinter. Each piece offers a snippet of the things we are often not meant to see or don’t want to deal with, exploring the murky, hard, unwanted, or desperate parts of the human experience.
For example, in “Realities” Carrie struggles to come to terms with how her life has played out. She uses psychotropic drugs to curb the depression that sets in after she decides to stay in her home town, rather than pursue her dream of becoming a pilot. Readers gain access to her pained mind, dark history, and bleak outlook on the future. In turn, her cousin Starr, their old teacher Mrs. Cunningham, and the pizza guy named Dominic offer different perspectives on what life looks like in that place and in that moment. Reality is a subjective concept and control is an illusion, the story suggests, but perhaps there can be glimmers of hope in the darkest moments.
In “Mulch Glue”, a personal favourite, a spirited teen girl finds a way to rise up (in hilarious fashion) against the local Mill. The Mill is polluting the beautiful waters of her father’s youth. Bree describes that “Those chems emit a sweet smell; it’s the smell of home, and it’s disgusting.” Skewing nostalgic ideas of place, the story confronts environmental ruin as a localized and pressing threat. At the same time, the character’s interactions with various adults highlight the immediacy of her emotion and point to the outmoded, paternalistic, and dismissive reactions young women, in particular, face when voicing frustration or fear.
Benjamin effectively moves through a variety of perspectives and voices. Middle-aged women spout venom at their poisonous mothers, fallen pastors sing hymns with a crew of burly men, immigrant women struggle to find employment in a system designed to oppress them. In the story “Home”, an accountant from Mongolia has to work as a nanny to make ends meet. As her employer chatters away, the narrator tells us: “Bayarmaa hates explaining herself to this woman. Aren’t they supposed to be equals, even if one lives in a mansion? There is everything and nothing to explain.” Throughout the collection, these one-sentence insights slap back when readers least expect it. They take our breath away and ask us to pause and consider what is presented to us more purposefully.
Not all stories land equally and a few stories feel a bit out of place; however, the collection is powerful in its depiction of pain and tenderness in its exploration of struggle. From kinks to drinks, from loss to love, from abuse to addiction, Boy With a Problem uncovers it all in gritty but beautiful detail.
About the author: Chris Benjamin is a journalist, editor, and fiction writer, as well as managing editor for Atlantic Books Today. He is the author of three previous books: Indian School Road, which was named a Nova Scotia Book of Influence by the province’s librarians and publishers; Eco-Innovators, which won the Best Atlantic-Published Book Award and was a finalist for the Richardson Non-Fiction Prize; and Drive-by Saviours, a novel that made the Canada Reads Top Essential Books List.
- Paperback : 220 pages
- ISBN-13 : 978-1989725276
- ISBN-10 : 1989725279
- Publisher : Pottersfield Press (Oct. 8 2020)
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