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Rural Manitoba stories a mixed lot

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/1/2016 (527 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Short-story collections can be a mixed bag, not simply in terms of quality but in terms of theme, tone and style. Some can seem a bit random, particularly when a newer writer is just able to scrape up enough words to fill out a slim volume.

New Manitoba writer Matthew Tétreault is not immune to this quirk of the form, but he seems to have a strong enough sense of who he is and where he's coming from as a writer for his recent release to be more cohesive than it might have been.

Though he now resides in Edmonton, Tétreault's stories are still very much rooted in southern Manitoba. This strong sense of place provides a connecting thread for most of his tales, many of which are set in or around St. Antoinette, a thinly veiled reference to his real hometown of Ste. Anne (though more often the town is not mentioned by name). Meanwhile, characters work at processing plants in Blumenort or Steinbach, within easy driving distance of their fictional town, while others work on the farm, or just sell drugs.

Winnipeg's just over the horizon, though in another sense it's in a different world entirely. Small-town and rural life, overlapping but distinct, are the subject of this book. While some suggest a trip, Winnipeg isn't a place anyone actually goes to in these pages.

For a first release, What Happened on the Bloodvein is surprisingly immersive. Tétreault already knows how to set the scene and draw his readers in by evoking all their senses: the smell of fish frying, the feeling of a cold wind invading a too-thin jacket, the taste of a stale beer. Local readers should appreciate the many Manitoba-isms: the anonymous couple's wedding social and its attendant trappings, the local fishing hole and the unique clash of cultures, from Métis to Mennonite.

The pace feels a bit off at times. Three consecutive stories early in the book feature the same narrator and protagonist and several supporting characters. This is followed by two period pieces set in frontier days, each wildly different in tone, before returning to the modern-day setting for the rest of the book.

The quality of the individual stories varies from good to excellent. Some have a 1950s Ray Bradbury small-town creepiness to them, wherein bitter, frightened or unhappy people lose their sanity or commit heinous acts.

Others are a 2015 Ste. Anne version of Douglas Coupland's Generation X, wherein eternal underachievers sleepwalk through life, seeking short-term happiness in warm beers and relationships of convenience.

The strongest stories take the reader to a living and breathing place, and let them ride inside the head of Tétreault's fictional characters for a while. A recurrent flaw that appears even in many of the stronger stories, however, is in the endings. Of course, the hardest lines to write are the first and last of a story. The final lines often don't feel final at all; stories seem to reach a certain point and then stop, appearing abruptly truncated.

Tétreault's stories have a way of taking on a life of their own. There's a definite sense that this place and these people really do exist, even though they've likely been poured out of the author's head, each one the distillation of 100 other people. It's a promising start for a notable newcomer.

 

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

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