Collection chronicles difficult lives

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December 3, 2013

Red Girl Rat Boy

By Cynthia Flood


169 pages, $18.95

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

Cynthia Flood, winner of the Journey Prize and the Western Canada Gold Award, amongst others, has published one novel and four collections of short stories. Her latest, “Red Girl Rat Boy” chronicles lives not easily led by those not easy to love; are any of us?  Marcia, in the title story, is sickly obsessive;  Ellen, in “One Two Three One,” rejects her own child.  A host of battle-weary activists spar with one another in “Blue Clouds” and “Dirty Work.” In “Eggs and Bones,” a resentful young mother lies in bed listening to her husband cook breakfast. “ Foods catch, stick on that scaliness, scorch.” Syntax is frequently truncated and I’m disarmed, on edge, as if asked not to get too comfortable.

With the agility of an acrobat, Flood navigates shifts and turns within time, often lifetimes, while employing a free indirect style that catapults the reader from a character’s most immediate experience to retrospective narration and then back again. In “To Be Queen,” the best piece in the collection, Kenny, whose relationship with his lover has just ended, recalls growing up with siblings in a family where a sister died before he was born. With his remaining siblings, in the way that we do, he seeks to piece together the particular grief that shaped him. “Each sibling privately recalls their first sight of Mom crying.”  In a psychic distance that could not be much closer, we are with Kenny in a playful childhood attack from his older sister’s friends; “They’re on me. First I laugh, then there are too many eyes and fingers, open mouths, teeth.” And a few sentences later, with a skillful widening of the aperture; “Thus I learned that if you don’t give a shit, or credibly pretend not to, even in defeat you have power.” At the end of this story, I am left yearning that my own children may never live with the absence of one another. Such is the emotional impact of this raw and honest writing.

Flood’s cast of characters cavort, love, grieve and rebel between the complicated layers of their lives. A montage of ailing elders subvert the meaning of the story’s title, “Care,” in a macabre nursing home setting. Several stories look back to Vancouver in the 70’s and 80’s. “Addresses” is a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the lives of those who rented in the West End at the time. It is, paradoxically, their quirkiness that makes Flood’s characters both recognizable and tender. In “Such Language,” Lauren’s mother, out of love, leaves a foul message on the machine: a wake-up call in code, the only language mother and daughter are capable of speaking.

These stories are told in a voice that navigates like an underground stream through the deepest channels of the psyche. These stories are felt in the marrow.

Judy LeBlanc is a fiction writer from Fanny Bay. She’s one of the founders of the fledgling Fat Oyster Reading Series.


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