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By Alexandra Leggat
Anvil Press, 169 pages, $18
When it comes to literary prestige, short-story writers have a hard time competing against novelists, whose longer form often enables them to pack a bigger punch. But that disadvantage also makes exceptions to the rule all the more impressive.
Animal, the third story collection and fourth book by Toronto writer and poet Alexandra Leggat, is a potent example of brevity at its best.
Like the stories in Leggat's previous collections, Pull Gently, Tear Here and Meet Me in the Parking Lot, the 14 pieces in Animal don't just come together pell-mell. Rather, they accrete, each story adding its emotional impact to that of the last.
And while every story stands alone, together they coalesce into a loose, but persistent, thematic unity.
The collection revolves around relationships between couples, friends and relatives, as well as between people and the world around them. Many of the stories take place in rural settings, and implicate the natural surroundings in the human drama.
Instead of serving as a focus of their own, however, relationships with nature and animals serve as foils for relationships with people. By looking at peripheral, unidirectional relationships, Leggat illuminates the difficult jigsaw puzzle of human interaction.
In Apples and Rum, the second story, a younger woman convinces her significantly older husband to retire to the country, only to have their marriage fall apart.
While she enjoys riding horses and taking in the countryside, he can't stop checking his Blackberry and figuring out how his neighbour can make more money growing grapes instead of apples.
As in a few other pieces, the gender roles constructed by Leggat can sometimes seem transparent. While women retreat into nature, men seek to master it.
In the title story, a woman's effort to spot coyotes distracts her from her troubled relationship with her sleazy, womanizing brother.
In The Last Monsoon, the secretary of a small town mayor feels that her marriage is disintegrating because all her husband seems to care about is growing the winning entry in a giant pumpkin contest.
"I have to be honest, sir, I don't believe in raising giant fruit," she says to her boss. "The whole practice is sick. I think the goddamn seeds and all the chemicals floating in the goddamn air were killing those pigeons. Those friggin' mammoth pumpkins are destroying everything; the birds, my marriage, everything."
But Leggat complicates these stereotypes in later pieces. It's a woman who chops down the giant maple tree in her front yard in Tourniquet, much to the dismay of her husband and her neighbours, showing that both sexes can be insensitive to nature as well as to each other.
While many of the relationships in the book are between men and women, there are also stories that describe non-romantic alliances.
Blue Parrot, the longest piece, deals with two acrimonious sisters-in-law, with a glass bird serving as the vehicle for their strained communication.
For the most part, Leggat's short stories are indeed very short, with the briefest coming in at less than two pages. Many of them might be thought of more as vignettes, taking in a scene or a setting without elaborating at length on the plot.
Leggat's spare prose further adds to the impression of absolute economy. Rather than taking away from the collection's impact, however, Leggat's care and concision results in some expertly calibrated stories, leaving the reader both satisfied and wanting more.
Ezra Glinter is a Winnipeg writer.