There’s something we simply cannot resist about a roundup, and a collection containing a selection of the best Canadian short stories just as the holiday season is getting underway? Yes, please, sign me up, I’m here to devour it. Best Canadian Stories 2023, edited by Mark Anthony Jarman, is a collection of 15 stories, chosen from a number of publications, all by Canadian authors. Of particular note for this volume of the series is that it is dedicated to the writer Steven Heighton, who died in April of 2022. The collection is bookended with two of his stories: one which Jarman had already selected for the collection before Heighton died, and one which Jarman had also been considering for the collection.
These stories all have a thread of sadness and trauma running through them, even though they don’t always address the pandemic. “Mother,” by Jowita Bydlowska, which I recognized from its earlier publication in The Fiddlehead, is one of the few which outright addresses it; the main character acknowledges the selfishness of travelling during an earlier period of COVID-19, on her way to a writing retreat. There are twists and slow-burn revelations in a number of these stories, laying the groundwork and then yanking out the rug. In “How to Fake a Breakdown,” by Alexandra Mae Jones, the narrator details the monotony of her job in maintenance at a seniors’ home, before peeling back her true relationship with the home.
There are tragedies and moments of joy, heartbreak and love. These stories span decades, including jumping into the future with Omar El-Akkad’s story, “Oddsmaking,” where those left in what used to be California, workers and others tending to the constantly burning land gamble on the places that will burn next. This collection is dark, but it certainly has a finger on the cultural moment. Even Heighton’s stories have that thread through both, neatly providing a frame for the collection. Each of the stories has deep, reflective qualities to their writing; a collection curated by one person has the advantage of feeling cohesive because of the tastes and preferences of the editor, even though none of these stories were originally intended to be set together.
Best Canadian Stories 2023 is a solid collection of short stories. Suited for the casual reader who might be wanting to get a sample of the fiction talent in Canada right now, as well as the reader with a deeper knowledge of the Canadian literary landscape. The stories here showcase the breadth and depth of the short stories you can find in the Canlit world, and I thoroughly enjoyed this roundup of great stories.
Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of Touch Anywhere to Begin, Czech Techno, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, 19 Knives, and the travel book Ireland’s Eye. He has published fiction and creative nonfiction in Europe, India, and North America. Jarman is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a fiction editor for The Fiddlehead literary journal in Canada.
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