You Are Not Needed Now, the first collection of short stories by Giller Prize-nominated novelist Annette Lapointe, commands the reader’s attention from its title story to its near-Swiftian urban folk-tale finale.

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You Are Not Needed Now, the first collection of short stories by Giller Prize-nominated novelist Annette Lapointe, commands the reader’s attention from its title story to its near-Swiftian urban folk-tale finale.

The Saskatoon-born, Grande Prairie-based Lapointe — who lived for a time in Winnipeg as well as Korea, Quebec City and elsewhere — is a keen observer of the zeitgeist as played out mainly on the urban Prairies, including Winnipeg, as well as small towns, First Nations reserves and even a cross-country bus.

And while she is perhaps one of the least judgmental writers around, her characters, so immediately identifiable, aren’t left off the hook. With her dark humour encased with stylish wit and an unflinching eye, Lapointe demands her characters take responsibility.

They may fail, but their striving for peace is important. Lapointe knows the crucial difference, as many writers don’t, between compassion and sentimentality, and these are stories of deep feeling tempered with sharp edges. The stories, like many of their zen-like titles (You Are Not Needed Now, When You Tilt Your Head Just So The World Will Crack, If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now), are often mysterious and paradoxical, but Lapointe’s craft is so fine that you realize they are such only once you have finished your journey through them.

The theme throughout is that an ordered self, often expressed in simple cleanliness, is imperative to live — more, that a dwelling place, however compromised, is a redemption from the stink of life and offers a physical and spiritual refuge. "Clean up your act" would be a rough way of putting it, but Lapointe presents people who want or need to do that to gain redemption.

The transition sought to achieve a new life is deep in each story, nowhere more than in Invisible City, a key story of the collection. Jay, in transition from female to male, looks for the missing mother of his stepdaughter on her First Nations reserve. His transition is mirrored in technological and social shifts going on around him. Young women from the community have gone missing just as the female Jay is shifting to his new gender identity. He needs a shot of testosterone not to "revert," as he sees it, and injures himself in order to get one from an indifferent hospital. Meanwhile, he slowly fits into his missing girlfriend’s world, becoming accepted by the community. The metaphor is strong and beautifully rendered with restraint and grace.

The title story shows that easily dismissed low-paid workers and outcasts can still find each other. In the story, a laid-off worker who becomes an occasional prostitute at the racetrack finds rest with an older man as lonely and lost as she is in his modest place at the edge of the city. They are like most of Lapointe’s characters — they have psychological or even physical scars, and/or are at a loss to make sense of their lives at best.

Lapointe’s most desperate characters in When You Tilt Your Head Just So The World Will Crack are the young couple expelled from a cross-country bus where they meet and fall in love. Thrown off for a violation, they struggle to get to the city, hoping for a place to stay and begging for any corner where they would be cosy.

Lapointe doesn’t spare those with lovely dwellings either, with well-meaning liberals skewered and political correctness if not dismissed then thoroughly shaken-up in How Clean Is Your House and Scatterheart.

Above all, in this collection, Lapointe proves she is the most humane of writers, presenting the world as it is, warts and all.

Rory Runnells is a Winnipeg writer.