Rafael Has Pretty Eyes by Elaine McCluskey

The press info, as well as the blurb on the back of this collection of short stories remarks that while the stories are set in the Maritimes, they transcend borders, which I find interesting. While reading the stories in Rafael Has Pretty Eyes, I felt so very at home, because the stories were so rooted in the Maritimes. As a Maritimer myself, who has stubbornly refused to leave the region, I love fictional portrayals of the Maritimes, and I love writing which is steeped in our culture. Elaine McCluskey’s work here may transcend borders, but there is a very unapologetic Maritimes positioning in these stories, and I think it should be celebrated! I was delighted to find myself on streets I know in Halifax, in neighbourhoods I’ve spent time in or lived in, and landmarks I know well. Rafael Has Pretty Eyes brings two things I love together in one neat, well-executed package: Atlantic Canada, and strange, evocative literary fiction.

McCluskey plays a lot with expectations in this collection: several stories set us up for a slice of life that starts out as one thing, before a dramatic, throwaway line at the end which changes the whole tone of the story. The first subversion happens in the opening story, “It’s Never What You Think It Will Be,” which in hindsight was a clue for both this story and the rest of the book, but I was so completely drawn into Michael’s thoughts and telling of the roast of his stepfather that I forgot that clue. And even after I knew to expect that twist, I was still always surprised by the drama of the shift. McCluskey’s execution of this, particularly in several instances, is masterful. The story which shares a title with the collection, “Rafael Has Pretty Eyes,” is particularly jarring in its departure, but incredibly realistic.

Rafael Has Pretty Eyes also captures the ennui of the particular moment, while blessedly not bringing up the pandemic. The characters in each story are struggling in some way, facing rejection and difficulty in their lives. In “Dirty Little Lair,” I felt very strongly for David, who was at a job interview for a position that had been filled before he showed up. Similarly indicative of the current job landscape was the subsequent story, “Would You Recommend Us?” is an exit form filled out by a laid-off journalist, after decades of loyal work in the newsroom. Reading it felt a little too on the nose in some places, to the point where I would believe it’s real and not fiction.

Rafael Has Pretty Eyes is an eclectic short story collection, firmly Maritimer in its language and setting, and flips your expectations on their head. If someone were to ask me for a book that would help them understand the urban Maritimer, I would pick this one.

(Editor’s note: this review originally appeared at the Atlantic Books Today website and is reproduced here under arrangement with them.)

Elaine McCluskey is the author of three acclaimed short-story collections — Hello, SweetheartValery the Great; and The Watermelon Social — and two novels, Going Fast and The Most Heartless Town in Canada. She is a Journey Prize finalist and her stories have appeared in journals such as The Antigonish ReviewRoom and subterrain. She lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Goose Lane Editions (March 29 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 254 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773101633
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773101637

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Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.