I have been itching to write about these books since reading them – since before I finished reading them. These stories are brilliant and addictive and I wanted them to last forever.
Late Breaking is K.D. Miller’s most recent book, and it’s the one I read first (thanks to the folks at Biblioasis, who sent me a copy!). The brilliant thing about this book is that all the stories are inspired by Alex Colville paintings – an idea I am in love with.
The first story, The Last Trumpet, was inspired by “Kiss with Honda” and takes place in Sackville, New Brunswick, where Colville taught fine arts at the university. (On the campus of the university you can visit Colville House.)
Len Sparks lives alone with his dog, Sister. As he gets ready to visit his wife’s grave he looks back at their life together, including the time he saw her kissing a man through the window of a Honda.
Len seemed to know exactly what to do – step quickly back behind a tall hedge and watch as the Honda passed him by, the driver invisible through the sunlit windshield. He felt as if he were in a play, performing a role he had been rehearsing all his life. Next the script directed him to turn and walk to that little cafe around the corner. Sit over one cooling cup of coffee until his usual coming home time.
And when, in time, she did come back, did slide those few inches to press up against him, all he felt was the usual gratitude and relief. And though he never stopped looking for it, he never saw the silver Honda again.
Len appears again later in Crooked Little House (inspired by the painting “Dog, Boy and St. John River“). An ex-con named Curtis finds Len just as he’s about to roll over the edge of the boardwalk into the frigid swamp at the waterfowl park, in grief over the death of his dog. Mary, Len’s neighbour invites them both over for Thanksgiving Dinner, where they all have their own reasons for refusing the wine.
The bottle is sitting on a coaster in the middle of the table. He reaches for it. Twists it open. He’ll have to listen to that delicious glugging sound of the first pour. Watch the red swirling up against the sides of Len’s and Mary’s glasses. Breathe in the smell of it, sweet and dark.
“Len, can I pour you some of this?”
“Thanks, but alcohol does not play nicely with my heart pills.”
Mary shakes her head too. “I shouldn’t be drinking right now either.”
“Well. I guess it’s all mine, then.” Curtis pushes his chair back. Carries the bottle into the kitchen. Pours the contents down the sink.
In Late Breaking (inspired by “January“) Mary’s father, Eliot, has dumped his last girlfriend, Jill, with no explanation. Jill is on a book tour with the other finalists for the Olympia Featherstone Award for Fiction when we learn about her past with Eliot. We can’t help but wonder what happened… and we do get a better idea when Eliot shows up in his own story, Octopus Heart (inspired by “Mr. Wood in April“).
Eliot has always had a hard time connecting with people, including his ex-wife and daughter Mary. But the octopus at the aquarium has a mysterious hold on him, and he keeps going back to see her. (“If anyone was going to reveal him to the world as the hollow man he knew he was, it would be this tiny creature.”) Sometimes it takes the unexpected to open up a heart.
He’s not going to cry, damn it. He does enough of that at home. He’ll be doing dishes or watching TV, and the tears will just start to leak. As if he’s filled to the brim with them and they have to spill over. Today he squeezed half a bottle of eye drops into his eyes to get rid of the red before setting out to have lunch with Bill.
In other stories: a woman tells a man her secret in exchange for sex; a woman is mugged in her home by someone who smells of Juicy Fruit gum; a young child seems to be hearing voices telling her what to do; an elderly woman who has been grieving her daughter for decades decides it’s time to write a book; and a stay-home writer, who hasn’t done much writing, gets called out by his wife.
Leo spends his days now in a state of fear. He is afraid of the hollowing in his stomach that tells him morning is over and it’s time for lunch. He is afraid of the shadows lengthening along his study floor, reminding him that the afternoon has ended and Fiona will soon be home. He is afraid of his desk calendar, whose squares he imagines marked off in black X’s advancing upon the day when he will have to start searching for a job.
A favourite passage:
Curtis actually likes shelving books. First putting them in order on the cart. Then wheeling up and down the stacks, finding each volume’s precise place on the shelf. Sliding it in between its fellows. Checking three books to the left, three to the right. Shifting the spine in or out to be flush with the metal edge. He likes straightening, too. It’s purely physical. You could be from Mars, have no idea what the letters and numbers at the bases of the books’ spines means, and still be a good straightener. When he’s finished a bay, he always takes a step back and eyeballs it, top to bottom. Pushes or pulls anything that’s even a quarter of an inch off.
Another favourite (inspired by “Three Girls on a Wharf“)…
The younger women – not many of those – are the modest ones, undressing awkwardly under towels they’ve tucked round themselves. Women more Harriet’s age get matter-of-factly naked and take their time squeezing into their bathing suits, not seeming to care how they jiggle or bulge. Have we all just given up? Harriet thinks, hanging her suit on a hook in one of the shower stalls and rinsing down. Or is this wisdom?
From the author: “... if there is one thing I hope the collection Late Breaking can achieve, it is this understanding that our hearts stay young and open, right up until the end.”
I loved Late Breaking so much that I went straight to the library and requested All Saints.
All Saints was a finalist for the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. All the stories in this collection include characters who are connected to the All Saints church in some way; with characters often appearing in more than one story.
The narrator of the first story, Barney, grabs our attention right away by referring to himself as “you”. As Garth daydreams about a buddy in the war he hasn’t seen in 60 years (Barney), he’s interrupted by his wife (of 60 years) who is calling him up for lunch.
Hell with her. ‘Could you lift this and could you reach that and just look at the spot on your nice clean shirt and when am I going to get a new washer-dryer and and and.’ And talk? Jesus. Not like she’s trying to tell you anything. Not like she’s got something to say. More like her heart’s in her tongue and if she ever stops for one blessed minute that’ll be it.
We come across Garth’s house again, and the room he built for Barney, in What They Have. As a young couple, Dave and Emily move into the very room that was meant for Barney. Over the years they accumulate stuff, material items as well as emotional baggage.
His guilt. Her anger. That’s what they have now. That’s what they carry around. Damned fool things to hang onto. Why don’t they just put them down?
In the second story of the collection, Still Dark, we meet Simon, the new rector of All Saints, in his office, confessing to a woman’s sweater. He’s attracted to the woman who accidentally left her sweater behind, but is hesitant about getting involved with one of his parishioners.
Simon appears again in Ecce Cor Meum, as Kelly (the woman who left her sweater) worries about her health issues while wondering whether or not Simon is interested in her.
Sometimes she imagines herself very old, thinking back on all the things she could have said throughout her life, but didn’t. Because she didn’t want to make a fool of herself. Or didn’t want to make a scene. Or rock the boat. Or find out the truth.
In Return, Emily is in rehabilitation for paralysis after having a stroke. She has several visitors, some of whom offer a place to stay when she gets out: Her ex-husband David, who is on his second or third wife now; Della, who wrote a memoir from the point of view of every cat she ever owned (an excellent idea!); Simon, too, comes to visit, and he laments the decline of his congregation.
Damn it, Emily, I should be running an old-time abbey – a place where people could come if they needed shelter. But the fact is, I’m running a museum. And I’m starting to wonder if I should just let it die, one way or another. Maybe trying to keep it alive is vanity on my part. Or fear. Maybe All Saints is just asking me to leave it alone. Let it be. Take it off life support.
Other stories include: a man who gets lost in the woods on an awkward trip to the cottage with friends of a co-worker; Simon’s secretary Gail who has won the lottery and doesn’t know what to do about it (“Now that she can have anything she wants, she can’t seem to want anything at all.“); an ex-teacher who has been in prison for decades after poisoning her entire grade two class; and the sole survivor of that grade two class.
The strange thing is, when we do finally cross the line, what we find on the other side of it is not strange at all. Everything that led up to that final step – all those years of doing exactly what everyone expected us to do – that is what’s strange. And we can’t help wondering what took us so long. It’s all so ordinary. Like coming home. Others think it must be extraordinary. But those of us who have crossed the line know better.
All I’ve learned… in all the years, is when to shut up and listen.
K.D. Miller talks about how she came to write stories inspired by Alex Colville Paintings: “I felt as if I could spend the rest of my life gazing into those paintings. Pulling stories out of them.”
Review of Late Breaking in the Hamilton Review of Books: “These stories plumb the depths of sadness and despair but never lose sight of their obverse: the quiet resilience and dignity of the human spirit, which doesn’t fade with age.”
Review of Late Breaking in the Quill & Quire: “As for the book’s focus on aging, Miller’s attentiveness to the ways daily routines must be scrutinized by those whose energy or mobility is at a premium is touching, while swathes of time pass by in a blur for the younger characters, whose lives are frenetic, exhausting, or afflicted with resentments or insecurities.”
Review of All Saints in MacLean’s: “But Miller, a Canadian, makes the reader see a significance in their lives they do not; her genius, like that of Alice Munro, is wringing suspense—and poignancy—from the quotidian.”