August 8, 2020

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First-rate fiction

Insightful stories make for a powerful, precise collection

William Faulkner once remarked that writers often start with poetry or short stories, find those genres too difficult, and settle for writing novels. A provocative ribbing of novelists this is, but also an apt salute to the intricate craft and power of short fiction — something amply evident in Hunger Moon, a debut short-story collection by Cumberland, B.C. author Traci Skuce.

At first, this collection presents as a modest grouping of 13 slice-of-life stories with a singular focus. Then it opens up, as the artful writing and the complexity of the emotional landscape heighten the appeal and significance of each story.

Crystal Chowdhury photo</p><p>Traci Skuce’s stories present themselves as modest slice-of-life pieces that open up as artful, complex examinations of emotional landscape.</p>

Crystal Chowdhury photo

Traci Skuce’s stories present themselves as modest slice-of-life pieces that open up as artful, complex examinations of emotional landscape.

The tempestuous lives of young females is indeed the glue that binds these stories; only one features a male point of view (ironically, perhaps, the least powerful of the lot). Otherwise, the author measures the world from the lens of female character, many of whom are at an emotional divide — impatiently waiting for something remarkable to happen to lift them from "ordinariness," or navigating trauma and the disappointments encountered in sex, romance or new parenting.

Choices made at a cusp point are choices later regretted. One character yearns for someone else to pick up the flotsam from her life, to "do a better job of being her." In the story aptly titled Needs, the narrator expresses a longing for "a door to open," for a wise woman to offer "elixirs… a well-worn map, a key, something, anything, to guide me along these perilous ridges."

Of course there is no elixir, no outside force to pull this woman or any of the other characters back from the perilous ridges of their own making. In this way, the stories artfully coalesce as characters’ lives and needs echo one another. In Elephant Shoe, a young mother with a squalling baby and a deadbeat husband expresses a yearning that moves like a minor chord throughout the collection — the longing to "rewind time, take it all back."

What lifts these tales from being weighed down by heavy angst is the author’s ability to inhabit the interior lives of her characters and show us anew how the particular mirrors the universal. The emotions and moods of her characters can easily resonate for any heart that beats: The sensation of meeting and then falling in love is, for one character, like "chipping plaster away from a beautiful fresco" and for another "as though she had stepped off a cliff and discovered she could fly." Loss and grief are felt as a "heart crumpled, tossed into the smallest corner of her chest."

Stunning imagery continues as the vehicle to universalize. With a Shakespearean flourish, Skuce shows nature’s sympathetic reflection of human moods: "Outside the large casement window, November pressed its purply-black sky against the glass;" and "Winter clasps its hard silver buckle back across the sky."

Another uplifting feature is narrative play. The author experiments with voice, including the use of the less common second-person "you." She slips in linked stories where the first and the penultimate feature the same characters and, occasionally, she skirts the traditional use of quotation marks with dialogue.

Most effective is her play with time in the interjections of an all-knowing voice cutting sharply into a character’s imaginings of how life will unfold. In Because the Fall is in Two Weeks, a pitch-perfect story that would gladden the heart of Faulkner, the main character’s assertion that things will work out is followed by a sassy interjection: "Spoiler: It won’t work out." And later her fantasy of "nursing (her) baby under the silver light of a full and maternal moon" is undercut by the intruder voice listing what will actually happen in babyhood: "anemia," "mastitis," "vomit" and "spiked fevers."

This first book from Traci Skuce is definitely worth reading. There are a few features that might cause readers to quibble, such as the focus on the privileged-world problems of the young, but ultimately the precision and beauty of the writing and the psychological depth of the insights elevate this collection.

Marjorie Anderson works as a freelance editor and teacher of creative writing.

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