Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction: David Huebert, Amber McMillan, and Claire Wilkshire

It’s Atlantic Book Award season! There are twelve awards under the umbrella of the Atlantic Books Awards. To see all the nominated books, authors, illustrators, and publishers visit atlanticbookawards.ca. And you can follow along on Twitter @AtlBookAwards.

Happily, the short fiction titles are from a few of my favourite independent publishers.

Chemical Valley by David Huebert (Biblioasis)

I became a big David Huebert fan after reading his first collection of short fiction Peninsula Sinking. In recent months (and on-going) my time has been more limited, so, even though I read Chemical Valley back in the Fall, I still haven’t written about it here. I’m happy for the chance to at least touch on it as best I can.

My quick thoughts: dark, disturbing, excellent.

A slightly longer assessment: Huebert really nails the atmosphere of the industrial area around which his characters live and work. The oil industry both their livelihoods and their undoing. His prose is darkly poetic, conjuring up images of oil slicks and dead animals from the first two pages.

Behind him the river wends and glimmers, slicks through refinery glare.

What you might find, if you were handling a dead pigeon, is something unexpected in the glassy cosmos of its eye: a dark beauty, a molten alchemy.

As a result of his poetic literary powers, I found myself mesmerized by the words and stories in this book, despite the grim contents. Or, even, because of them.

No official studies on the area because Health Canada won’t fund them but the anecdotal evidence is mounting and mounting and the whole community knows it’s in their bodies, in their intimate organs, zinging through their spit and blood and lymph nodes.

There are few things as lovely as the sight of blood pooling on white ice. No red has ever seemed more red – like a rose blooming out of a snowbank.

There are times when there are no good choices. There are moments when you have to choose between your own happiness and your duties, your vows. What you may have to realize is that “sickness and health” can become very literal, very mundane. “Sickness and health” can mean you spend 90 percent of your waking life cleaning vomit and changing your baby’s diapers and helping your impossibly pale wife stagger from the bathroom to the bed, her body like an apple tree in winter. It can mean walking over to a lump of covers and body holding that screaming infant several times a day and the child’s mother always groaning back, “I can’t I’m sorry I just can’t,” a morbid whistle wheezing through the back of her mouth where the chemo has rotted the teeth out.

A breeze from the river and the smell of garbage from the curb and the roaches in their hundreds tumbling, scuttling, clacking, a mound of writhing bodies clambering over and against one another, plummeting from the top of the pile, landing prostrate on the sidewalk, wings flexing, forelegs scuttling useless, seeking purchase on the air.

The fungus does not itch, exactly, but radiates. The fungus pines for fingers, calls for the touch that will feed its spread. The fungus has eyes, stares back in dull mirrors. The fungus does not sleep. The fungus lies awake, glowing neon through the night.

You pop off, whirl your tiny fists, declare your cat-voiced rage. The pain shrieks through nipple and gland as I bob and rise, rock you to the window, behold the smokewashed dark.

The Running Trees by Amber McMillan (Goose Lane Editions)

The Running Trees is just the right book to read after Chemical Valley – it’s so much fun. Again, I read it back in the Fall, but luckily, I have some good notes.

Quick thoughts: short, snappy, fresh.

Longer: Let me illustrate my “quick thoughts” by elaborating on the title story, The Running Trees, for which I’ve jotted down in my notes, “Best Thing Ever.” The Running Trees is a dialogue between two cats, Snuggles and Oreo. The story starts with Snuggles pontificating on life as a cat, life with Oreo, the world in general: “Yes, here we are, toiling on this spinning ball, here only to ponder the spinning cycles we are enslaved to.” It’s when Snuggles starts talking about the nurse he is in love with that Oreo says he wants to change the subject. Instead, Oreo brings up his experience of being put in the “hard box with holes to see through,” then into “another, bigger box” with the people. Then, always always The Running Trees. “I was a prisoner in a nightmare forest with those demon trees running past me, so fast, faster than anything I’ve ever seen.

Many of the stories are almost pure dialogue, some written like a play. Two Kids and a Dog is a dialogue between Simon and Jude about how their friends are moving to a one bedroom apartment in Vancouver with two kids and a dog, leaving behind “a house, two cars, a motorcycle, a motor boat, right? A canoe. They have these two kids and a daycare and jobs and they’re just like: f*ck it, we’re out.

Pick Up is a phone conversation between Abe and Em. Abe is calling Em from the airport asking for help. He’s desperate – he’s been at the airport for 3 days with no wallet and he needs some money. But first he has to apologize for all the crap he’s done in the past. He tells a good story, practically earning the money he’s asking for.

In Pluto of Happiness, Anna wants Gus to know how much he hurt her 17 years earlier. “I was the furthest thing from happy possible. I was the Pluto of happiness.

Spaced throughout the collection are three parts of a story called The Book Club (Act I, II, and III). In Act I, five characters gather at a library for a book club meeting but end up postponing it. There are some grumblings about the contents of the chosen book: a book about their town that was written by an “outsider”. “I’ll tell you what I know – I know about what’s right and what’s wrong. I know it’s wrong to write about real people and their lives. To never even ask permission. I know that for damn sure.” In Act II, there’s talk of lawsuits and whether or not everyone’s “entitled” to an opinion. In Act III, there is a big turn out for book club – even the media is there.

Other stories include: two sisters argue about the meaning behind words; an ex-couple reminisces on the phone about their long-distance relationship; a young girl tags along to the hockey rink with her older brother, badgering him with questions; a detective interviews a man about his brother who has a history of arson and lying; and a mother tries to figure out why her daughter wet the bed.

Stories that hit the eardrum and head straight to the heart. Joyfully experimental — Lisa Moore

The Love Olympics by Claire Wilkshire (Breakwater Books)

If David Hebert’s prose is excellent and Amber MacMillan’s stories are fresh and original, Claire Wilkshire’s writing is relatable and funny.

When the very first story was called Mothers and the first line was “On Labour Day weekend, mothers across the country mobilize,” I knew I was going to like this book.

You have built an inner fortress against sadness; you have steeled yourself to maintain a fierce, detached cheeriness as you look at your sweet young (very young) person and see a tear run down the side of a nose. You have unpacked boxes you helped to pack two days earlier; you’ve advised on storage strategies in small places; you have swept and folded and sorted and set up… You’ve wielded a credit card so often you have tennis elbow, and by evening you are exhausted and depleted. The fortress walls have been breached. They’ve been breached by fatigue, sweat, uncertainty, and the most fervent desire for your young person to be happy, combined with the knowledge that happiness is beyond your purview.

Then there was a story called The Dinner, in which three women get together to celebrate their collective 50th birthdays. I can especially relate to Angela who is just so happy to be away from her regular life, even for just a short time.

Angela was enjoying herself already, without even having arrived yet: the anticipation, the getting away from the house, leaving them to sort themselves out for a while–she was escaping and the evening air smelled clean and there would be who knows what.

I, and some others I know, can relate to this…

… she was so tired, she hadn’t really slept in months and she could sense that she was losing her grip sometimes, because she didn’t seem to be able to think anymore, she didn’t actually have thoughts; thoughts would flit limply around in her vicinity instead of developing in her head, and she’d have to try and snag one as it passed and examine it to see if it was useful…”

I have also wondered this exact thing before (although, maybe not quite so passionately)…

… what’s wrong with them, that they need to be carrying around humongous water bottles all the time–do they leak, those people?… Can you remember anyone having a water bottle when we were growing up? Ever?

Dating made me laugh. After 20 years of marriage, Kimberley finds herself single again and refuses to sit around and wallow. I haven’t dated since the nineties, but I imagine this story would be relatable to anyone who has tried online dating. Poor Kimberley doesn’t have a lot of luck, but the account of her first (and last) zip-lining experience is hilarious.

Other stories include: four friends on a scavenger hunt; a woman whose son wants to donate one of his kidneys at the age of 21; a 92-year-old woman who stops to rest part way up the stairs and looks back on her life, still “sharp as a tack” but needing some help with Facebook; a young woman just getting started in life wonders how it will all turn out; and a story that compares life and love with the Olympics. A very apt analogy.

My daughter tells me this is exactly the right description for the taste of coffee: “She drank a small sip and tried to enjoy it, but it tasted like maybe you were making cake with melted chocolate chips and you burned them onto the bottom of the pan and three years later your mother found the pan and soaked it in a tiny bit of water, and the water was this coffee.

These story collections each have their strengths and I loved them all – the jury has a tough decision to make.

11 thoughts on “Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction: David Huebert, Amber McMillan, and Claire Wilkshire

  1. annelogan17 says:

    Wow Chemical Valley sounds terrifying. Even the short parts you included are haunting, like that image of the rotted out mouth is really hard to forget. I was excited to read your review of Running Trees to sort of forget the horror of the book before!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s good to know what you’re getting into when you go into it! Ha! But, of course, his ability to create those burning images is what I love about it. (And his other book, too!)

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