En­tire life­times, emo­tions packed into a few pages


The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - TREVOR CORKUM Trevor Corkum’s novel ‘The Elec­tric Boy’ is forth­com­ing with Dou­ble­day Canada. Spe­cial to the Toronto Star

Deb­o­rah Wil­lis earned wide ac­claim in 2009 with her de­but col­lec­tion “Van­ish­ing and Other Sto­ries,” a fi­nal­ist for that year’s Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Award. More aus­pi­ciously, the col­lec­tion gar­nered that rarest of lit­er­ary ac­co­lade — a blurb from Alice Munro, who praised the work’s “emo­tional range and depth.”

While it’s be­come de rigueur to com­pare emerg­ing short story prac­ti­tion­ers with Munro, in the case of Wil­lis, the com­par­i­son feels apt. Like Munro, Wil­lis packs life­times into a scant few pages. And like Munro’s best work, these are sto­ries con­cerned with the rue­ful back­ward glance; the al­most arche­o­log­i­cal fas­ci­na­tion with the lost ephemera of daily life.

Take “The Ark.” In this com­pelling comin­gof-age tale, Lea re­calls a fraught child­hood friend­ship with her emo­tion­ally dis­tant hus­band, To­biah. Wil­lis’ pitch-per­fect de­scrip­tions of Sun­day school Bi­ble sto­ries, splin­tered church pews, Pop­si­cle craft time and 1980s bowl­ing al­leys gen­er­ate a pal­pa­ble ten­sion be­tween painful flash­back and nos­tal­gic long­ing.

While Wil­lis’ con­cerns of­ten veer into pop cul­ture — hu­man colonies on Mars, re­al­ity TV — she has a gift for ex­plor­ing the sim­mer­ing power of teenage sex­u­al­ity. Whether hook­ing up in the sub­urbs, skinny-dip­ping at sum­mer camp, or trad­ing shop­ping mall blowjobs for cash, her teenagers are in a per­pet­ual strug­gle for au­ton­omy, rap­ture, rev­e­la­tion or sim­ply a way to pass the time.

As a whole, these are sto­ries that es­chew the ten­dency of many con­tem­po­rary writ­ers to call too much at­ten­tion to ac­ro­batic lan­guage or cool, ironic prose. Her writ­ing is crisp, eco­nom­i­cal, un­fail­ingly gen­er­ous. These are com­pas­sion­ate sto­ries, an­chored in the be­lief that our lives achieve mean­ing through the sto­ries we tell our­selves about our own ex­pe­ri­ences. Like Ed­die, the re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic who be­friends a stray crow only to doubt his ca­pac­ity to of­fer safe shel­ter. Or Hannah, whose com­pli­cated feel­ings for a friend lead to a trou­bling and dar­ing string of neigh­bour­hood break-ins.

It’s this off-kil­ter two-step be­tween de­viance and re­demp­tion, shame and self-ac­cep­tance that im­bues the work with its rich emo­tional power. This is a fully ma­ture, beau­ti­ful re­al­ized col­lec­tion.

‘The Dark and Other Love Sto­ries,’ by Deb­o­rah Wil­lis, Hamish Hamil­ton, 256 pages, $29.95.

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