Avalanche by Jessica Westhead

Avalanche by Jessica Westhead is a collection of thirteen short stories.  Each of the highly polished pieces draws the reader into a comfortable narrative and then abruptly injects a knife and twists it hard, ensuring that the wound cuts deep. Those stabs will make the reader wince as Westhead exposes harmful acts of bigotry, racism and white privilege.  One cannot help but be self-reflective as Westhead weaponizes humour to highlight her exploration of identity politics, whiteness and intersectionality.  

“Westhead weaponizes humour to highlight her exploration of identity politics, whiteness and intersectionality.”

Threaded throughout the stories is an ominous sense of unease.  In the title story of the collection, Avalanche, we meet Tina, the mother of six-year-old Ashley.  Tina considers herself a bit of an activist and is looking forward to an upcoming Women’s March.  She intends to take Ashley with her and has made a very cute sandwich board sign for her daughter to wear, utilizing pink bristol board, string and glitter.  As the story unfolds, we learn some of the ways in which Tina second-guesses herself and is unhappy with her life choices.  Among them, is the loss of contact with Donna, her Black friend from work, 

Tina regularly wishes she could have Donna over for coffee or tea or even wine – wouldn’t that be fun? – but even if she had Donna’s contact information, she could never have her over because the house is filled with embarrassing souvenirs from the all-inclusive resort in Jamaica where Tina and Brian went for their honeymoon.  It was a nice vacation but also not nice, and now Tina can never forget it because all their fridge magnets are either flip-flops or rum bottles or…  Worst of all is the Rasta wig attached to the colourful knitted cap that hangs on a hook in the master bedroom, and any time there’s a breeze from the window, the imitation dreadlocks shake like they’re alive…

Tina’s husband, Brian insinuates that by taking their sign-wearing daughter to the Women’s March, she will be endangering her by allowing “creepy men” to take pictures of her and “think perverted thoughts.”  Tina immediately second-guesses herself and begins to worry,

…she worries for Ashley, whose beauty takes Tina’s breath away sometimes.  She often wishes her daughter was plain and unremarkable, like Tina has always been.  There is some protection in that.  

Tina reverts to focusing on her homemaking chores, including dusting the offensive honeymoon souvenirs,

The only thing left to do is the dusting, but this is Tina’s least favourite chore because it includes Brian’s souvenirs.  She can pinpoint the exact moment when she started seeing them differently… Tina hasn’t told Brian about the change in how she feels about all of his Jamaica mementos.  He never changes the way he feels about things… She roams the house with her microfibre cloth until everything shines. 

Ultimately, Tina is lulled into inactivity and complacency by her marriage and the controlling role of her husband.  Sexual and physical violence, racialized thinking and hate are broadly hinted at in the subtext of the story.  One is left reeling and a little breathless by the final paragraphs. 

Similarly, in Moments with Mustafa, we meet a well-intentioned older woman named Darlene.  Darlene visits the library regularly and becomes friends with one of the security guards.  Darlene makes a series of assumptions about Mustafa and his personal life and forces her friendship upon him.  It quickly becomes clear that Mustafa is a polite but unwilling participant in her largesse and that Darlene is imagining an intimacy between them that is not there.  

Anyway, something weird happened yesterday and I’m still trying to figure it out.  I arrived at the library and got in line and there was Mustafa and I waved at him, but he didn’t wave back.  Instead he turned around and went inside.  He was moving quickly, as if he’d forgotten something. 

Darlene’s loneliness and her well-intentioned but patronizing overtures are writ large.  Westhead highlights the dichotomy of those who may mean well but whose blind spots and biases continue to perpetuate colonial ways of thinking and acting.  

Westhead’s collection of stories is a call to action of sorts, a reminder of the difference between intention and impact, and a call to stop making excuses and take seriously the important work of decolonization and anti-racism. A powerful and moving collection from a gifted storyteller and social justice advocate. 

Jessica Westhead is the author of the novels Pulpy & Midge (Coach House Books) and Worry (HarperCollins Canada), and the critically acclaimed short story collections And Also Sharks and Things Not to Do (Cormorant Books). And Also Sharks was a Globe & Mail Top 100 Book, one of Kobo’s Best Ebooks of 2011, and a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Short Fiction Prize, and Worry was included on CBC Books’ Best Canadian Fiction of 2019 and the CBC Canada Reads Longlist. Jessica lives in Toronto with her family.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Invisible Publishing (Sept. 26 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 145 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1778430260
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1778430268