Southern Ontario often calls up images of the spectacle of Niagara Falls, picturesque vineyards, and sunny beach towns dotting the shoreline of Lake Eerie. But if you’ve ever driven through its desolate fields and crumbling farms and felt a chill down your spine, or stepped off a bus into a place that looks harmless, but feels dangerous – then you know what Sydney Warner Brooman’s debut short story collection, The Pump, is really about.
The Pump refers to a small swamp of a town in Southern Ontario, where the water is poison, the wildlife is sinister, and the people float in and out of one another’s lives, thrown together in a stew of suburban chaos, corruption, disease, and decay. The pot boils slowly throughout these interconnected stories, a pervasive dread seeping into the very fabric of the characters’ lives, so that they become nearly numb to the horrors of the place they call home. And those who do wake up to the trouble they’re in, often find it’s too late – they’re already cooked.
The collection opens with “The Bottom,” which introduces us to Ellie and Bodhi who go beaver hunting in the marshes with their father. They soak raisins in blood and wait for the carnivorous beavers with whom they share the Pump, to come and get them. They do this, we learn because Ellie and Bodhi got too big to use as bait anymore. It is an effective introduction to the gothic landscape Brooman has created and to the casual cruelties – parental, marital, political, environmental – that permeate it.
The beavers, who both eat and are eaten by Pump residents, reoccur throughout the book. In the story, “I Can Outrun You, Too!” Brooman takes us into the world of Pump mayor, Jacob Jameson. It is he who suggests that the beavers can be hunted, their parts sold off to richer people in richer towns. But then, it is also he who turns a blind eye to the kids who die in the marshes; also he who understands that to hold on to his position of power, certain (human) sacrifices must be made. In short, he keeps the beavers fed. When one of the creatures appears in Jacob’s office, we see this exchange between them:
“I could make a hat out of you. It’s snowing. I could wear you out in the snow and my head would be warm and you wouldn’t eat anyone ever again. The beaver raised a paw to its tiny mouth and coughed. Its voice was low and raspy. I can outrun you, too, it said.”
Through the beavers, we get both a deeply unsettling bit of magical realism and also an interesting disruption of the beaver as a patriotic Canadian symbol. In Brooman’s stories, the very notion of “home” is turned on its head, and what is exposed in the process is unremorseful violence and all-consuming rot.
The Pump clearly takes inspiration from Alice Munro, a master of the gothic pastoral, but Brooman puts their own contemporary, surrealist spin on the work. One of the most resonant aspects of the collection is the depiction of queer relationships to show the desperation of being different in a small town – a desperation further amplified by the many ways, literally and figuratively, that this particular town is out for blood. In “Mal aux Dents (or Toothache),” Taylor and Laurent are queer bible camp leaders who find an escape in each other, even when escape from the Pump feels like an impossibility. And in The Pump’s closing story, “Home,” Jo must contend with her mother’s attempts to send her to conversion therapy, while also reconciling her girlfriend Marty’s passionate condemnation of the Pump with her own attachment to all that is familiar, deadly though it may be.
The Pump is not a book for the squeamish. It veers, at times, into the kind of visceral horror that may keep you up at night, and whispers warnings about what happens when humans turn on the land, and on each other. Altogether, it is a strange and satisfying debut which, despite its nightmarish magic, manages to capture something terrifyingly real.
Sydney Warner Brooman (they/them) was raised in Grimsby, Ontario. They attended Western University in London, Ontario, and currently live in Toronto. The Pump is their debut short fiction collection. Their story The Bottom” was shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s 2020 Open Season Awards, and they have recent work in American Chordata, Thorn Literary Magazine, and other literary journals. You can read an interview with Sydney here.
- Publisher : Invisible Publishing (Sept. 7 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 144 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1988784794
- ISBN-13 : 978-1988784793