Shortly after I saw the announcement on Twitter that Katrina Best‘s book of short stories won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Caribbean and Canada category, the book arrived at the store. You know I love short stories and the fact that this collection, which I hadn’t yet heard of, won a major prize made me quite happy. I snatched up the book immediately, before it made it onto the shelves—one of the perks of working at a bookstore.
A slim, attractive volume, Bird Eat Bird features six short stories, and at 168 pages, this small book, like Stuart Ross’s Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, is perfect for carrying about in your handbag for commutes or waits in line or even brushing your teeth. It’s the book, in other words, to be seen reading.
The first story, possibly my favourite but it’s difficult to decide, is called “Lunch Hour,” based on this true story here. A motley crew watches with mixed reactions as a pelican laboriously swallows a pigeon in a park in London. Hard to believe that such a horrifying scene could be humorous, but that Best’s talent for you. Already I was wildly enjoying this book.
Next, in “Red,” a narrator of questionable mental aptitude (at first it’s questionable) relates her day, in which she has a conversation with a disabled woman in a bathroom stall after accidentally barging in on her, and two youngsters steal her sunglasses, and she spends time with Wayne, a “mildly schizophrenic” little person from “Norf-East London—a place called Barking.” I read this story on my half-hour lunch, and barely ate, being unable to keep from laughing aloud. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these kooky narrators are often my favourite characters. At the same time, this is by no means simply a funny story. There’s more to “Red” than you see at first.
In the third story, “At Sea,” the Cope-Gagnon family hits the beach, and Carol, a mother of two who’s suffering ennui in her marriage, finds herself being swept out to sea by a strong current and unable to swim back. While she waits for someone to notice and rescue her, she reflects on her life, possible imminent death, and her family. In “Tall Food,” a thirty-something woman experiences a third date rather differently than her date (this story would have made a great Seinfeld episode), and in “Tea Leaves,” a young woman skims money from the till at work, and her gay friend Patrick, a supervisor where she works who “had a Cornish accent and a strange little tic—he finished most sentences with a mysterious utterance that sounded like ‘bom’,” takes the rap.
The final story is called “Tripe and Onions, in which a teenage vegetarian cashier, who daydreams about being with her crush Jamie, struggles with having to scan a quivering package of tripe, with dire consequences. Even if you’re not vegetarian, your stomach will likely turn! Throughout Bird Eat Bird, Best’s concrete imagery and sensory descriptions, especially in “Red,” are reminiscent of what you might find in poetry, and this story is no exception.
These six stories, while brief, do not lack substance, and like most short stories, there is also depth in what is left unsaid. They explore the many facets of vulnerability and love, sanity and insanity, and possess a humanity that is both sympathetic and endearing. The stories also showcase Best’s fantastic wit as well as her talent for portraying quirky yet believable characters (I’m reminded of Audrey [Oddly] Flowers) and picking up on everyday events to make them extraordinary.
For a debut, this is a superbly impressive collection; mercifully, there is no pretentiousness, no self-consciousness. But it is assured writing, finely tuned and effective in its brevity; the characters are full-bodied because of how well Best chooses what they say. In fact, the book embodies what I aspire to: quality, simplicity, honesty, interesting perspective (in this book we’re talking cultural [Best is from the UK but now resides in Montreal], emotional, and intellectual), and depth. I’ve thought about this carefully: the only complaint I can think of is that there isn’t more to read and enjoy.
[Update]: I’m also slightly mortified, on now reading other reviews, that I’ve said pretty much what others have. Not that I want to be contrary, but what good is a review if it offers nothing new for the author? I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for more praise, Katrina.