Collection’s stories are sharp and true

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May 23, 2013

The Green and Purple Skin of the World
By paulo da costa
Freehand Books, 208 pages, $21.95

Reviewed by Yasuko Thanh

Born in Angola, raised in Portugal, paulo da costa won the Commonwealth First Book Prize in 2003 for his collection The Scent of a Lie. In The Green and Purple Skin of the World, his first book of short fiction in 10 years, language and its power form a thread through many of the stories and words are highlighted in entertaining characters such as Dona Branca, who collects newspaper clippings of disasters and glues them in an old photo album.

In “Those Who Follow,” a tale of hunter and hunted, a cougar reminisces, “Perhaps my mother wrapped me in words of hope to help me tolerate the immense body of pain she understood was coming.”

Language acts as a kind of saviour. In the title story, da costa explores the world of love and loss through a tale told in letters. The epistolary device works because the letter writer never gets a reply and, as such, her longing is more keenly felt. The narrator, Shana, writes, “Home is any language I speak.” Yet as hope bleeds into disappointment, she also concedes, “There are sounds in my mother tongue your throat will never set free.”

The one-sided love affair is underscored by the recurring, transient image of a bubble blown from a bubble wand. The story unfolds through a thoughtful, poetic treatment (not surprisingly, since da costa is also a poet). Every sentence feels carefully controlled, aiming for its effect.

In “Not Written in Pencil,” my favourite story in the book, we learn about the dissolution of an auto mechanic’s 13-year marriage to a cheating wife. Her new-age justifications spur his anger. The narrator’s self-deprecating voice is tempered by a wry humour and a sarcasm he employs to shed light on his own tragic upbringing. The voice here is strong.  Authentic.  His heartbreak and raw shock is perfectly captured in blue-collar fashion as he tries to explain his current failure with his own dealings with his son. Voice carries this piece. This is the best story in the collection because it allows us to enter the narrator’s heart, in lieu of the omniscient perspective da costa favours in other stories.

In “Table,” a man does what needs to be done for his young family and is defined, as are other men in the collection, by those moments of quiet suffering. He chops off his own index finger to save himself from the draft. “He offered his finger to the officers, asking them if that ‘qualified as sufficient proof he could not pull the trigger or did they require his whole arm?’ ”

Da costa seems to imply that real heroes don’t die for others but live for others. My own heroes are those who sacrifice themselves quietly, without reward, day after day, heading to a crappy job, riding home on the bus, looking after loved ones. Da costa nicely blends both types of heroes in “Table.”

The stories are tightly written, sometimes with seeming thematic agendas. Imagine the beam of a flashlight shining onto a vast landscape. The focus is often so spot-on that many of the stories function almost as proverbs. The light might be perfect for some readers, though others may find the beam too singular. If you have a preference for stories that aim sharp and true, with few loose threads about them, then this collection might be for you.

Yasuko Thanh’s short story collection, Floating Like the Dead, was recently nominated for a BC book prize.

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