Mad Hope, by Heather Birrell, Coach House, April 2012, 232 pages
I’ve always read good books. Because of the way I choose a book, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever regretted a purchase. But I think, during my whole long reading life, never have I read such great books in succession since publishers found this blog a couple of years ago and began offering me review copies. I don’t know if it’s just that my appreciation has deepened through reviewing, or if the books I’m reading (tending to be by young Canadians) are more my thing than what I previously read, or if certain publishers are getting better at picking what they produce, or if writers are in general actually getting better, contrary to what many think.
Maybe it’s all of these things. Maybe it’s none, and I’m just very lucky. Whatever the reason, over the past couple of years, again and again I’ve read stories that cause me to marvel at them, not simply enjoy them.
No book is perfect, of course. But Heather Birrell’s latest, a collection of short stories called Mad Hope (published by Coach House), is so good, the writing so strong and skilled, I kept thinking, These stories are perfect.
The collection is divided into three parts (sweetly, simply, indicated by the number of frogs on the page). In each section and in each of the stories, there is death or loss, whether purposeful (murder, abortion) or not (miscarriage, drowning). But there are also the themes of birth and motherhood and family; children feature prominently, particularly babies both unborn and born. In fact, and I only just noticed this, the endpapers show a pattern of sperm (swimming upward and downward, respectively – or are they tadpoles? Ha!), as does the background on the back cover. The design of this book, by Coach House senior editor Alana Wilcox, is both gorgeous and significant.
An interesting tidbit, then, while we’re on the topic of frogs, because I wanted to know the meaning of them in this book, besides their significance in an excellent story called “Frogs” (about a teenage girl who is pregnant and asks her bio teacher [who’s had an interestingly relevant history in Romania, who teaches his class respect for the frogs they dissect] if he’ll take her to an abortion clinic). Frogs all over the book and are addressed even in the epigraph. So:
When the frog jumps into your life it may indicate now is a time to find opportunities in transition. We see animal symbolism of transition with the frog in its unique growth cycle. The frog undergoes incredible transformations to reach the destination of full adulthood, and so do we as humans.
The frog understands what it is like to undergo some serious growing pains – and so it is a fantastic animal totem for teenagers as they sometimes struggle to find their place (in-betwix youth and adulthood) in society.
In many cultures the primary symbolic meaning of frogs deals with fertility. This is largely because these cultures observed Frogs laying enormous quantities of eggs, therefore making it a fertility symbol as well as a symbol of abundance.
In China the Frog is an emblem of Yin energy and thought of as good luck. Feng Shui practices recommend putting an image of a Frog in the east window of your home to encourage child birth and/or happy family life.
Frog energy is also considered to be a link between the living and the dead.
(emphasis in original)
This does quite fit the themes of Birrell’s book. In “BriannaSusannaAlana,” three sisters, six, ten, and nearly thirteen, deal with the fact that there’s been a murder in a brownstone near them. “My Friend Taisie” tells the story of a young man whose partner has just committed suicide. At present, the young man is avoiding having to deal with his grief by staying with his friend Taisie, who is pregnant and about to give birth to her second child. “Wanted Children,” one of my favourite stories even though I’m not sure I quite got the ending, is about a young couple who after a long time trying to conceive lose the baby through a miscarriage. They decide to get away from the pressure of feeling having a baby is what they must do, and travel to the Amazon basin and down the Cuyabeno River.
The story from which comes the title Mad Hope, called “Geraldine and Jerome,” was actually my least favourite, the one I found less believable somehow, but its message of hope, expressed by and living within a young, optimistic, and unlikely character, is significant, especially in light of the other stories. The overriding theme in part one is of youth and coming to terms with death and loss, but it ends on a hopeful note.
Part two contains three connected stories. In “Dominoes,” Maddie writes to her brother Jeremy, remembering her past with him, and her brother’s friend, Richie, and the murder he committed of a gay man. In “Bye Bye Flangle Nuts,” we meet Jeremy, whose girlfriend is practising makeup application on him. As his face is done, Jeremy remembers back to six months ago, when he found out from Maddie that his father was dead, something he’d sort of foreseen. He remembers his father, and in particular the jealousy he perceived in him when he was watching Jeremy present his school speech at the finals. And then in “Dingbat” we have Maddie’s perspective again, remembering too her father’s death but also her brother’s absence. In this story, there is a sense of loss surrounding all of Maddie’s family, including the dog.
The third and final section has three stories. The first, “No One Else Really Wants to Listen,” is written as a series of comments in a forum for pregnant women. This is brilliantly executed in form and in terms of character, and tells the story of a woman who is pregnant when she first goes on the forum but is about to lose her baby through miscarriage. While she worries about the possibility of this happening, she confesses to the others that in the past she was an escort for women going to an abortion clinic. As a blogger and blog reader, I particularly related to the types of comments and characters. Birrell really captures how strangers interact; there is a sense of abandon in anonymity, which allows one to be both bold and more intimate and honest than one might be with a “real life” friend.
In “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning,” a woman remembers her mother’s death by drowning while they were on a trip together, but also tells of her young son’s near drowning. And in “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams,” told from the perspectives of a grandmother, Eliza, and her granddaughter, Samantha, both at the granddaughter’s sister’s wedding, each remembers the past and looks with hope to new beginnings.
Writing these descriptions has made me feel like deleting them because of how they grossly oversimplify the stories and how they sound almost depressing. That’s my fault, because they’re not. There is such excellent humour in this book too! I tell you, you have to read the stories.
And the thing is, you don’t have to do much thinking to see the themes of death, loss, need, birth, sex, marriage, family, hope — they’re somewhat obvious and even a little repetitive, though dealt with in very individual, well-crafted stories. But while the themes would make for interesting discussion, while they indeed reflect the human experience and how we each try to navigate that experience, it’s Birrell’s even better execution of the finer points of writing — the excellent dialogue, the expertly crafted inner thoughts of characters, the original and highly effective and often humorous way of putting things, and especially the details she pinpoints — these are what really make these stories as perfect as they are.
Birrell is brilliant at writing details, at situating us, at making us see a person as though they were right in front of us, at causing us to relate. The stories are peopled with characters so real, so poignantly human, that you can’t help but feel as though you might be intuitively observing these people in real life. In “Frogs” she describes a school so aptly I suddenly remembered my own high school. I knew exactly what she was talking about, both the quiet and the ruckus; I swear to god I smelled the halls.
Vasile was alone in the science office when Naadiya knocked. The two colleagues with whom he shared the space had sprinted out the door seconds after the bell rang. He understood it, the pressing desire to put distance between the overwhelming stimuli of the school and the shaky sanctity of the self. But minutes after dismissal, there was a new quiet in the school — a deflated sense of contentedness, as if the building had digested something, then belched up its essence. It was not like this of course on the main floor, near the drama and music wing, or in the basement gym, where rehearsals and practices went on, causing a ruckus with bleating trumpets and bouncing balls and proclamations of love and victory. Here on the second floor was a different story. A calmer, emptier story.
In these stories, people feel the threat of rain in their sinuses, days are of the sort when bad men choose to bury body parts, drivers wearily flip each other the bird or furiously shake their fists like thwarted revolutionaries, then fold themselves angrily and efficiently into eggplant-coloured SUVs. Men having their makeup done make a face “all bunchy and shit. Like a bulldog swallowing a wasp.” Women get tipsy at weddings and drunk pee in the bathroom so vividly your head spins with remembrance.
Smug polished stones cluster next to the sink beside a pile of dried rose petals resting in a shallow pewter dish, and in the mirror, Samantha’s own self, flushed from the wine and the dancing. The hairdo seems prepared to rally, but an anxious musk is mingling expertly with her perfume, clouding out from under her arms, between her legs … Inside the stall is safe and square, the lock slots into place as it should. She swings her skirt up and forward, gathers it in front and works her underwear down with one hand. Once seated, she relaxes into the pee, her panties pulled taut between her knees. Everything, her whole life, shrunk now, to this stall, which is every stall, every seat where she’s ever sat to pee. A room of one’s own and all the careful deliberation of the drunken: narrowed eyes, clasping fingers, the slow tear and the slower, conscientious wipe … Samantha … is experiencing some of the empty-headed euphoria that accompanies dizziness. Her gaze slides easily up the walls and to the ceiling, then back down again.
Mad Hope is a collection of stories that have you experiencing others’ lives. They’re simultaneously echoes of your own humanity, so that you can relate, and like virtual reality, stopping just shy of literally walking in someone else’s shoes.
They say that art, particularly good art, imitates life. I’d say Heather Birrell goes beyond imitating it. She creates it.
Thank you to Evan Munday and Coach House Books for sending me Mad Hope for review! This review was part of the Fictionista blog tour featuring Heather Birrell, Sarah Kathryn York, Alison Preston, Cassie Stocks, Margaret MacPherson, Barb Howard, and Arley McNeney. I’ll be reviewing Sarah Kathryn York’s novel, The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré, as well.