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Cooper's collection chronicles love lost

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/8/2017 (498 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In Sally Cooper’s stories, love is elusive, unpredictable and often misshapen, but that doesn’t stop her characters from trying for it.

The 14 connected stories of Smells Like Heaven look at people who get messed up by the failure of love, yet indefatigably move on to the next mess. While characters grope toward hope, Cooper focuses on what one describes as the “chewy” stories of their failures.

Cooper is the Hamilton-based author of two novels, Love Object and the disturbing and suspenseful Tell Everything. Published by Winnipeg’s ARP Books, Smells Like Heaven is her first collection of short fiction, containing stories written over the past 20 years. Her ability to unflinchingly peel back the skin of her characters to look at the darkness underneath has earned her acclaim and a committed readership. Although most of these stories do not contain the full tension of her novels, her signature intertwining of love and damage is apparent.

This collection follows the relationships of two sisters, Devon and Christine, together with various friends, lovers and relations from the mid-1970s to 2010. Mostly based in the fictional Ontario town of Fletcher — which Devon calls Retcher — as well as Toronto and Hamilton, the characters move back and forth searching for some place they can feel satisfaction.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/8/2017 (498 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In Sally Cooper’s stories, love is elusive, unpredictable and often misshapen, but that doesn’t stop her characters from trying for it.

The 14 connected stories of Smells Like Heaven look at people who get messed up by the failure of love, yet indefatigably move on to the next mess. While characters grope toward hope, Cooper focuses on what one describes as the "chewy" stories of their failures.

Cooper is the Hamilton-based author of two novels, Love Object and the disturbing and suspenseful Tell Everything. Published by Winnipeg’s ARP Books, Smells Like Heaven is her first collection of short fiction, containing stories written over the past 20 years. Her ability to unflinchingly peel back the skin of her characters to look at the darkness underneath has earned her acclaim and a committed readership. Although most of these stories do not contain the full tension of her novels, her signature intertwining of love and damage is apparent.

This collection follows the relationships of two sisters, Devon and Christine, together with various friends, lovers and relations from the mid-1970s to 2010. Mostly based in the fictional Ontario town of Fletcher — which Devon calls Retcher — as well as Toronto and Hamilton, the characters move back and forth searching for some place they can feel satisfaction.

Even though Cooper’s characters never find long-term contentment with a partner or family unit, it doesn’t stop them from expecting to find fulfilment with the next one. The structure of the connected stories works like the turning of a kaleidoscope; each new story brings a new configuration of pairing and separation. Like in a soap opera, characters become connected in increasingly convoluted ways. For example, Devon’s younger sister, Christine, has an affair with Devon’s friend Will, who is in a relationship with their school friend Wendy. Will eventually becomes Devon and Christine’s stepbrother when their parents split and Will’s mother marries the sisters’ dad.

Parents come off badly as they abandon their children physically and emotionally. In Father’s Day, Devon goes to a party and sees her father flirting with Will’s mother, her makeup smeared "like a gas-puddle rainbow." Devon realizes that her dad "had done his fatherly stint. He would live as he wished now." Christine, in the story Here, in the Dirt, listens to their mom complain how her estranged husband doesn’t care for the family dog anymore. Their mom argues the dog could catch rabies and bite one of them, saying, "It would serve your father right if I caught rabies and died. You, too, Christine." Christine sees her mother is "far enough gone that she dreams of me dying to make him feel bad."

In You Fall Alone, a teenage girl runs off with destitute middle-aged Will to try to find her own runaway mother. They don’t get far before Will asks for gas money and she realizes that "being an adult meant falling down and asking anybody who loved you — your kids, anybody — to prop you back up." The title story is fraught with tension as it follows the efforts, however misguided, of a desperate father’s last measures to take care of his family.

As the children grow up and become parents themselves, Cooper doesn’t offer hope for the future, although she provides an occasional lucky break. Even then, the damage has already left its mark. The tiny glimmer Cooper offers of a shining future is marred by the knowledge of the certain pain ready and always waiting in the wings.

Mary Horodyski is an archivist and writer in Winnipeg.

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