BC author captures reality in fiction

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February 14, 2013

People Who Disappear
By Alex Leslie
Freehand Books, 256 pages, $21.95.

Reviewed by Miles Steyn

The title of Vancouver author Alex Leslie’s debut collection of stories, People Who Disappear, sounds like a Dateline: Investigation Marathon. Yes, people do disappear, but don’t expect thrilling, high-stake plots; it’s the everyday, unassuming way of life which causes the Canadian characters who star in this book—some already gone, some living—to change and leave, be it figuratively, literally, mentally, or historically.

Although the plot of some of the stories tends to run away at times, Leslie has an ability to abduct readers with her dark, poetic language, which stands upright, screaming for attention.

Like a camera out of focus, it could take some time to adjust to the metaphors stacked high on each page. Some jar the reader: “The snowy road balanced against the side of a dark mountain, the ultrasound image of a bone inside an arm,” but others strike an image with perfection: “air thrown up by the ocean rushes down the deck and makes my stomach its windsock.” Once you find a rhythm to Leslie’s prose—paying closer attention to the human drama of the stories rather than plot—her tonally and textually rich writing will clasp your attention like a vice grip.

In the opening story, “The Coast Is a Road,” two female lovers—the narrator and a journalist—roam the Pacific coast together, the journalist searching for environmental news stories, the narrator for intimacy. The story zigzags between land and sea, developing the relationship of the characters until a twist in the plot sinks the ferry upon which our two lovers are passengers. It’s hard to miss the connection between this ferry and the BC Ferry, MV Queen of the North, which sank in 2006. In fact, most of the short stories in this collection seem grounded in fact. “People Who are Michael” follows a series of YouTube videos of a small-town Canadian boy who becomes an international recording artist and millionaire before the age of seventeen. Sound familiar? Justin Bieber was evidently the inspiration for the character Michael, who, in an unexpected twist, is kidnapped by a crazed fan. From the colour of his wardrobe, his hairstyle, to the comment his mom makes below a video upload: “Michael before he was famous . . . sorry about the video quality . . .  you can hear his voice pretty great though . . . ” it’s glaringly obvious that this is a carbon copy of Bieber’s life, but with a strong, dark turn.

This collection of a dozen stories features every subject from gay women to the environment, each wrapped in social and political themes such as homophobia, mental illness, or environmental issues, and always backlit by Canadian culture.

People Who Disappear manages to paint portraits of people, not characters; humans who are unified in their flaws, emotions, and desires, all footed in the Western Canadian landscape Alex Leslie so organically depicts. Promising work from a young, talented British Columbia author.

 

Miles Steyn grew up in South Africa and has studied creative writing at UVic and UBC.

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