Quirky characters take to the road

Post image for Quirky characters take to the road

April 10, 2013

South of Elfrida
By Holley Rubinsky
Brindle & Glass, 231 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

The characters in Holley Rubinsky’s fourth book (and second collection of short stories) are simultaneously ordinary and quirky, predatory and loving. If you’ve ever been squished between motor homes in a roadside campground heading south, you’ve maybe shared a drink with them and surprised yourself with how much you’ve revealed about your life, while doves and grackles cavort nearby and small pets slink between your legs. In these stories, misfits and the wounded, often in the guise of aging independent single women unshackled from a lifetime’s worth of loss, haul their homes on trailer hitches and live temporarily in RV parks and rented apartments, usually in Arizona.

In the collection’s most touching story,“ Desert Dreams,” Nina, grieving her husband’s death and facing her mother’s imminent passing, takes to the road with a camper trailer. “The burden of being followed everywhere by her own home is an inescapable preoccupation too; for long moments she hurts less about Frank.”

Though her concerns may rest with matters of the heart, Rubinsky’s stories are unsentimental, edged with farce and sprinkled with capricious detail: an electric palm tree and a Chihuahua with his own sequined director’s chair. In “The Compact,” Sally, idling in a RV park for six months of the year, cherishes the tiny and not so tiny secrets she keeps from her boorish flag-waving, bigoted husband: her second glass of wine, the spit in the meatloaf, the compact in which she hides the ashes from the black baby she aborted in the early days of their marriage. Even Rubinsky’s darker humour does not so much horrify as hearten; I am left believing in the redemptive power of life’s odd miscalculated moments.

An undercurrent of tension in these stories suggests that unmoored from the safety of the familiar we are vulnerable to the predator, not just in the natures of others but also in our own. This is particularly evident in the first three stories, the strongest in the collection. In a chilling irony, a child molester encloses baby turtles for their safety, a woman walks willingly into a pen of frenzied emus and in the title story the “hawk man . . .bags the birds, each one a bride. She recognizes the intensity in him, the coldness.”

In a literary world where clever verbiage and narrative sleight-of-hand is too often celebrated over substance, Rubinsky’s voice is wise and straight-up. In uncomplicated prose with a depth that knows in the end we are all travellers, she explores the impermanence of things: the ethereal quality of desert light, the elusive nature of time and reality. Barb, who has run into trouble at the border thinks, “people camping a night here, a week there, don’t care about accuracy or truth.” In “Desert Dreams” a dying Miriam comforts herself and her peers by pretending she has seen “the special spark at the end, a flash of green as the sun disappears over the horizon.”


Judy LeBlanc writes fiction and has recently completed her MFA at the University of Victoria.

Previous post:

Next post: