Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sure-footed exploration of modern life

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TORONTO writer Heather Birrell has tapped into our dark Canadian psyche like a country witch with a crooked divining rod.

Her sublime stories are drawn from the margins of society but they are sure to capture a wider audience. Mad Hope, her second collection, is a sure-footed and mature exploration of modern life.

Like the darkly subversive Lynn Coady and the acid-tongued Cordelia Strube, Birrell is more indie than mainstream. The temptation to lump Birrell, 41, in with these more strident Gen-X scribes is alluring, but a closer read reveals a searing voice with her own distinctive imprint.

The opening story, BriannaSusannaAlana, first appeared in The New Quarterly and earned Birrell the prestigious Journey Prize. The intense narration changes hands like a slippery baton between three sisters. A local murder, an eerie matricide, has captivated and stunned their suburban community:

"What they knew for certain was that the victim was the murderer's mother, an old lady who once baked carrot muffins for her neighbours in 3F. He has buried her in the small garden adjoining the apartment building."

The narrative flirts briefly with possible tragedy and then just as quickly comes to a breathless halt. Birrell understands the teenage psyche with its mordant penchant for a closer peek at disaster, uncalculated risk-taking and contempt for authority.

BriannaSusannaAlana is a blistering introduction to a taut and complicated set of 11 stories that frequently seduce unsuspecting readers into a narrative trance.

In Wanted Children, an educated couple struggles with infertility from claustrophobic digs in Toronto's Bloor West Village. The story jumps over from the mundane to the dramatic when they take a much-needed yet politically correct holiday in Ecuador.

As the trip evolves, the marital tension mounts, and the distracted tourists unexpectedly encounter their own reproductive disappointment head-on. Will the forced march of eco-tourism's intentional adversity bring them closer together or tear them apart?

In Geraldine and Jerome, a bereaved 52-year-old waits patiently for an ultrasound of her left breast while cautiously engaging a sullen teenager in the waiting area. It's one of those random encounters that embraces the kind of intense intimacy only two strangers can risk.

This impressive collection is not light beach reading. It's gothically charged CanLit with a fresh, contemporary set of urbane characters.

The modern challenges confronted by the confounded characters reflect our zeitgeist with all of its blinding strobe light clarity and frustrating obfuscation.

Mad Hope is best read during the clean light of day. You don't want to miss any of the nuances, dense language or caustic political commentary.

Read it one story at a time. This collection requires quiet concentration as each tale resonates like a tiny, perfect novella. Mad Hope is hopeful yet realistic, wordy yet sublime. It contains everything a demanding reader wants from her short fiction -- wickedly accurate, open-ended portraits drawn from life.


Patricia Dawn Robertson is a Saskatchewan freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 J8

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