Soft Serve by Allison Graves

Soft Serve is Allison Grave’s debut collection of short stories, arising from her master’s program at Memorial University. These stories are mainly contemporary stories written about “middle-class millennials” — the world my children will occupy soon, one that I can only observe from a distance of about 25 years.

Is it any wonder young people feel lost in this world? They walk a fine line between caring about the state of the world and caring about it so much that they fall into anxiety and depression. The world is not a relaxing place to live in right now and our kids know it. Those of us who have already lived half our lives have the privilege of pretending everything is fine if we choose to.

Is it any wonder young people feel lost in this world? They walk a fine line between caring about the state of the world and caring about it so much that they fall into anxiety and depression.

The characters in Graves’s stories are walking around out there trying to figure things out: mental health, climate change, finances, relationships, and themselves.

In “It’s Getting Dark Out,” Lucy just “can’t stay optimistic anymore.” Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and the Dollar Store is “breaking its promise” to consumers. Why are things at the dollar store no longer a dollar?

In “Bad Ending”, roommates talk about endings — good, bad, or otherwise: relationships, weight loss, smoking, fear, TV shows, death. An infidelity is an “ending without having to end anything” and memories are a way of keeping things from ending.

In “Staying Alive”, Olivia grew up with parents who were health-obsessed and a babysitter who was scared of the climate crisis. She remembers her babysitter taking her to see An Inconvenient Truth, then standing outside after the movie shaking and smoking. Her dad got sick anyway and her mom aged quickly, and when she saw her babysitter many years later, he told her he had moved back to Newfoundland because it was “easier there to just pretend you existed separately from all the terrifying stuff.”

In “Value”, Amber is trying to figure out what’s important to her. As she finishes up high school, her family heads into financial trouble while her peers are blowing money and partying. Even her boyfriend’s carefree behaviour is starting to disgust her.

“Flat Circle” takes place right before the legalization of marijuana in Canada. Charlotte pulls out her bong whenever she’s feeling anxious, and has learned that her parents, too, have recently taken up smoking weed. She criticizes the modern trend of airing your intimate grievances online for the world to see and then almost does it herself. She reflects on the meaning “time is a flat circle”— that we’re “doomed to repeat patterns”— when she sees Jack with another girl weeks after she herself had been the ‘other girl.’  

“Sugar” tells the story about a character with another way to fill the emptiness: “By the time Helen got home, all the cupcakes were gone and even though I felt empty, I felt full.”

In one of my favourite stories in the collectionn — partly for the coincidental reason that I read it right after 100+ centimeters of snow had fallen in Cape Breton and people were trapped in their houses — “Ceiling in the Sky”, three roommates are trapped in their house during “Snowmageddon” in St. John’s. They handle the situation and their anxiety in varying ways. “Franny started making cookies and tidying up the living room. Then she rolled out a pie dough while the oven was preheating and I could tell that she was high as a kite.”

Graves nails the dialogue between young people in her stories, as well as the sense of isolation, boredom, and anxiety they share.

Graves nails the dialogue between young people in her stories, as well as the sense of isolation, boredom, and anxiety they share. When the character in “Sugar” is asked what she’s working on for her master’s degree, she replies, “Um, I guess just like some modern short stories about like technology and Instagram and feeling empty and shit like that,” perfectly summing up both the lack of confidence in the lives of Graves’s characters as well as her own stories about them.

Allison Graves received her BA in English literature from Dalhousie University and her MA in creative writing from Memorial University, where she wrote this collection of short stories. Her fiction has won Room magazine’s annual fiction contest and the Newfoundland Arts and Letters Award. She is the current fiction editor of Riddle Fence. She is doing a PhD at Memorial and likes to play drums and climb Signal Hill.

Publisher: Breakwater Books (September 1, 2023)
Paperback 5.25″ x 8″ | 224 pages
ISBN: 9781550819861

 -- Website

Naomi MacKinnon is a mother, daughter, wife, sister, friend, pet-lover, reader, walker, camper, and Nova Scotian. Naomi has contributed several guest reviews over the years to The Miramichi Reader. Her book review blog is Consumed By Ink.

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