Janet Nicol


Fiction Reviews 

The Old World and Other Stories 
by Cary Fagan.
Toronto, ON: House of Anansi, 2017
288 pp $19.95

Inspired by discarded photographs from the past, prolific Toronto-based author Cary Fagan has crafted a remarkable collection of “snapshots,”—that is to say, very short stories.   Prepare for a roller coaster ride of intuitively grasped portraits and unpredictable plots ranging from the sublime to the grotesque, based on 35 “orphaned” images.

Consider a head shot of a young man with slicked back hair looking gamely into the camera.   The author has named him Granger and imagined him to be a boat mechanic who can fix anything.   Betsy’s ‘little sister’—the narrator of this vignette—doesn’t think Granger is much of a boyfriend.  “He’d ride up (on his motorcycle) every Sunday evening and Betsy would run out and climb on behind him.  Then they’d roar off,” she observes.   Granger is full of surprises however and invites “little sister” along with Betsy to a matinee.   The trio are leaving the movie house after a film when a violent incident occurs, leading to Granger’s disappearance from both sisters’ lives. 

A female teenager, plainly dressed, bespectacled and calm-mannered is captured in another photograph, provoking a story entitled “Subversion.”  Two high school administrators (who are nameless) discuss how to deal with this (also nameless) young woman.  Besides excelling in science and math, she is brilliant at chess.  Her crime?  She has been coaching rival teams.  “She said that chess wasn’t about winning,” the one administrator tells the other.  “It was about problem solving or some such nonsense like that.”   Her actions motivate other students to challenge authority.     The administrators are at a loss about how to handle this young woman.   

“Tiny History” draws from a photograph of a rocky, surf-swept beach.   The author creates five haunting incidents occurring on the strip of beach from 1877 to contemporary times.  Another photograph of a cemetery with a stone engraved with the surname, “Greenlees” provides fodder for a clever story about a business rivalry, as seen through the eyes of  Greenlees’ nemesis.  

Among the most chilling tales is “Bad Rufus,” based on a photograph of a respectable-looking gentleman who is anything but.  Another horror story entitled “Fate” is told from the point of view of a husband and father and is based on a distant male figure posing for the camera by an automobile and trailer on a suburban street.   A wedding photograph serves up lighter fare in the form of an unlikely love story called “Invisible.”   “Where We Are Now” provides a rousing finale, depicting life trajectories of a group of children evoked from a photograph of an elementary school class.

Fagen has masterfully pulled back the veil of the “old world” to shed light on this fascinating selection of “lost” black and white images.    The author’s collection may resonate among those with forgotten or hidden stories buried in their own albums from generations past.  Fagen’s artistry also challenges the reader to look beyond stereotypes to the complex nature residing within each of us.


The Substitute 
by Nicole Lundrigan 
Toronto, ON: House of Anansi, 2017  
415 pp, $19.95

An intriguing sixth novel from Toronto-based writer Nicole Lundrigan, this psychological thriller will resonate with readers long after the last page is read.  Two plot lines unfold in alternating chapters, one told by an anonymous narrator, the other from the point of view of substitute teacher Warren Botts.   The reader can safely assume the unnamed narrator is an adolescent, otherwise the identity and connection to Warren’s story is unknown until the final chapter.

A shy and studious young man, Warren takes time off from his academic studies to teach science in a middle school.  He soon finds himself the centre of attention when he discovers the corpse of a student, 13 year old Amanda Fuller, in his backyard.    As the culprit is pursued, much is revealed about Warren and the people around him.

Realistic portrayals of adolescents have become common within the genre of teen novels, seeping as well into adult fiction.  Lundrigan certainly pierces the surface to expose dark undercurrents of adolescent behaviour.   The anonymous narrator provides a pivotal role in the novel, for instance, exhibiting features of a psychopath, such as a lack of empathy and sense of guilt.

This puts the reader on edge from the outset, made more uneasy when a scene of domestic violence is described.   The young narrator is capable of softening however and does so when encountering another adolescent outcast.   “Though my face remained still, something inside me smiled,” the narrator confesses.  “She was overwhelming, yes, but in an emptying sort of way.  When she rambled so close to me, everything else vanished.  I had not a single moment to think of anything else.  Lying in the snow, staring up at the pinkish sky, tiny snowflakes drifting down, I was pleasantly vacant.”

Meanwhile Warren is unable to cope when he becomes a murder suspect.   Nora, a single mother he is dating, provides temporary comfort, unlike his unstable sister, Beth.  Warren’s own childhood, provide understanding about his current emotional condition, as this passage indicates:

“That evening, when Warren emerged from a long shower, the air was heavy with the smell of food.  A savoury scent, strong and familiar, but Warren did not find it comforting.  It reminded him of the kitchen where his mother made meals.  Where likely his mother now sat in a worn wingback chair, staring out the window behind the table, coughing and awing for darkness to arrive.”

As the novel progresses, the divide between youth and adults becomes dangerously apparent.  Ultimately Warren’s own painful issues blind him to the truth about the perpetrator of Amanda’s death.  He isn’t the only unsuspecting adult either.    The novel’s conclusion will not disappoint.   A cautionary tale, “The Substitute” artfully creates an unsettling community made more malignant by an “undiagnosed” young person, capable of remaining hidden for years to come.

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