Instructions for the Drowning: Stories by Steven Heighton

This posthumous collection of short stories from Steven Heighton is named for, and starts with, the titular “Instructions for Drowning.” This was not my first interaction with this particular short story; I’d read it in Best Canadian Short Stories 2023, where it leads that collection as well. Heighton died in 2022, and the CanLit community has mourned since. I admit I wasn’t familiar with Heighton’s work before last year, but the outpouring of grief and praise, as well as the quiet, complicated “Instructions for Drowning” – well, I was intrigued by this final collection of stories from him.

“Instructions for the Drowning” is a strong lead for any collection, and even though I’d read it before, I was once again absorbed by Ray and Inge, Ray trying to remember how to save someone from drowning, their fractured marriage, their mutual agreement to act as if nothing is wrong, the striking events of that moment in which Inge is drowning, and how they relate to the years before and the years to come. This look at moments continues throughout the collection, with Heighton’s stories excelling when they look at the small chunks of time which change everything. Of particular note: “Expecting,” about a man and his pregnant wife finding a wallet, which later leads to them moving to a newer, bigger house; “Professions of Love,” the inner monologue of a vain plastic surgeon longing to give his wife some modifications so that she fits his idea of how she should look now; and “Who Now Lies Sleeping,” told through the eyes of a lawyer preparing for a run at city council, his much younger girlfriend who was a friend of his late wife, and his son, who’s come home with the ashes of his dead husband, after a lifetime of the lawyer’s rejection of his son’s sexuality. All of these stories have blessedly real, very flawed, and often unlikeable characters, and all have very distinct voices.

Steven Heighton has left us with a very strong final collection of short stories. I enjoyed every moment of reading Instructions for Drowning, with each story shedding light on different parts of the human condition, but also just being really interesting and entertaining reads. These stories are in the truest sense of the tradition, creating full worlds and fully realized characters, in just a few strokes, and anyone who enjoys a good tale will not be disappointed.

Steven Heighton (1961–2022) was a writer and musician. His nineteen previous books include the novels Afterlands, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and the bestselling The Shadow Boxer; the Writers’ Trust Hilary Weston Prize finalist memoir Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos; and The Waking Comes Late, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (April 18 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 224 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771965355
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771965354

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.

1 thought on “Instructions for the Drowning: Stories by Steven Heighton”

  1. I just received the copy I ordered! So excited to read them and love your review. I’ll keep it in mind when reading the stories.

Comments are closed.