Writings / Reviews

Fiction Reviews

J.C. Peters

Watching the Road

by Lee Stringer

Creative Book Publishing, 2008.

The subtitle to Lee Stringer’s new collection of 14 short stories, Watching the Road, is “every life has a story.” Each story is a slice of life from one of the inhabitants of Newfoundland’s fictional Bluff Harbour, a traditional fishing village, or Millbrook, a slightly larger town nearby. Each tale details an extraordinary moment in an ordinary life, and offers the character a choice: to continue on the old path, or step onto a new one. The characters must keep watching the road for what’s coming and what’s gone, whether they are ready for it or not.

The writing, for the most part, is simple and rather lonely, with each sentence relating specifically to the individuals in the story. There is not a grand or generalizing statement to be found in the collection, and each tale focuses on one or two people, often in an isolated setting. “Keepsake,” for example, the first story of the collection, opens with two brothers arguing and fishing, when one of them miraculously catches a wristwatch from the depths without a hint of rust. The first page describes the boat “cut[ting] through the water like a fin,” and the “blood” of the “drowning fish” “spatter[ing]” all over the boat. Usually, images like this in the first parts of a story foreshadow violence to come. As with many of these stories, however, the ominous feeling simply rests uncomfortably, rarely giving way to actual violence. “Warriors,” similarly, tells the story of a childless elderly couple stranded in the forest at night when their ski-doo breaks down. They hear the “panting” and “patter” of a coyote nearby, following them on their walk as they argue. The threat, again, is not so much the coyote, but what their argument reveals about their relationship.

Stringer is from small-town Newfoundland himself, and he adds an authentic flourish by peppering his dialogue with Newfoundland accents and expressions. Strangers are “b’y,” “ol’ cock,” and “skipper,” while extra plurals like “I haves,” “I needs,” and “you thinks” proliferate. There is a sense of community drawing all these lives together, but each story is unique. We encounter a son buying his mother her first computer, an old man who refuses to believe in homosexuals finding two of them in a bar bathroom together, a town fool singing at a wedding, and an elderly couple rejuvenating their sex life after many years. Circumstance is always lurking in the shadows of Stringer’s small town lives, waiting to change everything like a wristwatch in the water or a coyote in the dark.

Short stories, as a genre, are at their best when they raise questions rather than offer answers. Several of these stories do just that, especially “Stanley, the Good Dart Player” about a man who meets Stanley in a bar over a game of darts and befriends him, only to discover he has spent time in jail for having possessed kiddie porn. The man’s choice, in this case, is to accept or reject him, despite or because of his past. Stringer does not offer which he thinks is the right road, only that there is a choice.

Not all of these stories are quite so self-contained, however, and most work better within the collection than on their own. Some stories give too much and edge into preaching territory. “Saved” is about a punk trying to get his sick girlfriend to find God. It becomes clear that he, and not she, is the one that needs religion, and the good reverend tells him hopefully: “you’re not as lost as you think you are.” Similarly, “What Farrell Brought” is about young children playing house and imitating their family lives. Sure enough, one child has a dark secret at home that becomes rather obvious to the reader, and pathos is stretched to a breaking point. These stories take away some of the magic and mystery that short stories can offer by telling us too much.

As a whole, the collection from this young writer gives us insightful glimpses into the changing lives of individuals in small-town Newfoundland.


by Kate Story

Killick Press, 2008.

When we first meet Ruby Jones, the protagonist of Kate Story’s first novel Blasted, she is waking from a nightmare, sweating in a cast-off shirt left behind by a lover. Ruby, a tangled, half-washed, rageful, foul-mouthed, alcoholic Newfoundlander, has been wearing this shirt for four days, sniffing it for “the faint scents of curry and masculinity” that her lover left behind, despite the fact that he hasn’t called, and likely won’t. Still, she fantasizes while making her morning tea: “Maybe he’d come behind me, put his arms around me and lean his cheek on mine. We’d stand there together. Intimate, companionable. Maybe the Virgin Mary would phone and ask me to keep an eye on the Baby Jesus while she ran out for a pack of smokes.” Story’s novel is full of moments like this, sweet images cut through with sarcastic and insecure Newfoundland humour. Despite its heartfelt core, the novel never crosses the threshold of cheesiness or predictability. Ruby’s “heart language,” for example, is her thick Newfoundland accent, replete with curses, which comes out especially in moments of tenderness and rage.

Ruby has left her homeland of the South side of St. Johns for Toronto, where she waits tables, models nude, and gets so smashingly drunk she smashes things. Memories of her childhood on “the Hill” haunt her, particularly that of seeing the ghost of Shanawdithit, the last of the Beothuk Aboriginals of Newfoundland. The Beothuks were driven to extinction through contact with European settlers in 1829, and Ruby feels an inexplicable connection to Shanawdithit, considering her a long-lost soul sister, an impossible foremother. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about dark secrets of Ruby’s family and the “bad blood” that seems to leave them vulnerable to otherworldly creatures calling them to the other side. Story never explicitly describes the tragedy of the Beothuks and the cruelty of settlers that left them sick with tuberculosis and cut off from their native land. Rather, the memory of this injustice haunts the story like a shadow beyond the words, like the creatures beyond Ruby’s window, and the secrets in her family’s past.

In Toronto, Ruby lives alone with her beloved motorcycle and collects a motley crew of friends. These include Izzie, a drunk landlady with a “white potato face”; Ruby’s nosy next-door neighbour Earl and his homicidal cat; Blue, a West Coast Cree “multi-media artist, whatever that means”; Blue’s redheaded lover Gil; Brendan, an artist for whom Ruby models; Jason, a wandering van-dweller; and happy couple Judith and Tad, who encounter troubles in their marriage plans because “his family [are] drunken Welshmen, hers teetotalling Baptist Jamaicans.” This circle offers the human landscape of Toronto as multicultural, multi-sexual, and artistic, a community where everyone gets along across class, race, and professional lines. The image of this diverse group of friends plays into the Canadian myth of multicultural acceptance, which isn’t exactly true even in central Toronto. Playing into this motif, which is rapidly becoming a Canlit cliché, is one of the book’s few weaknesses.

Despite this Torontonian fantasyland, nightmares (or ghosts), hallucinations (or evil pigeons), and episodes of sleepwalking (or true sojourns to the underground otherworld) frighten Ruby enough that she returns to her grandfather’s house in St. Johns, and to the real heart of the story. Magical realist elements crop up as the narrative moves forward, textured with Newfoundland mythology and superstition. As Ruby uncovers the parallel secrets of her family and Newfoundland’s past, we follow, enchanted by the worlds Story creates.

With Blasted, Story offers us a fascinating, haunting, and often funny first novel in a fresh and thoroughly Canadian voice.

About The Author


J.C. Peters has a graduate degree from McGill University, where she specialized in contemporary Canadian literature. She is she is very active in the slam poetry scene in Vancouver, where she now lives, and will soon be co-hosting a radio show for UBC's CITR radio on the topic of Canadian writing. When not obsessing about Canlit, J.C. finds her ‘om’ in yoga.

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