Sharp and quizzical look at human experience

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September 19, 2014

The Pull of the Moon

by Julie Paul

Brindle & Glass, 2014

$19.95; 184 pages

Reviewed by Margaret Thompson

If fiction serves to map what makes us human, the short story may represent those small regions, shown in contrasting colour to demonstrate their position vis à vis the larger country or continent, and magnified to reveal their complexities in more detail. In her second collection of short stories, Julie Paul surveys the minutiae of human relationships with a sharp and quizzical eye.

Her characters are what would be called ordinary people: married couples and single parents, friends and colleagues, family members and complete strangers. We observe them in their separate landscapes, coping with separation and parenting duties, going on holiday, irritated by their neighbours and apartment living, resentful of family demands—all very much the stuff of daily life until we hear the details. Then we see the old secret behind the cottage holiday that has frozen a family in denial and guilt in “The King is Dead,” the psychic distortion caused by the accidental killing of a baby rescued from a car wreck in “Damage,” the grief and loneliness of a brother and sister, “each with a country to themselves,” in “Crossing Over.”

Many of the characters yearn for love and connection, but there is not a single straightforward path for any of them. In “Flip,” the main character seems at first to be a caricature of a librarian: Claudia is timid, socially awkward and has a talent for self-deprecation. She has also had very few sexual experiences apart from an early collision with fellatio and a short-lived relationship with Clark which ended with a text to say he’d gone to Alberta.

Rodger’s courtship transforms Claudia, who “feels like another person has entered her body,” and she finds herself whisked off to Cuba, where she sees, “Women with gigantic cigars in their mouths, looking like they’re enjoying themselves immensely.” This is sex as fun, but Andrew’s experience in “Weeping Camperdown” is alarmingly different. He is a single parent dipping his toe in the dating pool once again. He seems to find a soulmate in Joni. Lying under the Weeping Camperdown in the Ross Bay cemetery is idyllic, but subsequent events quickly bring far more than he bargains for, Joni’s ideas of love being as freakish a mutation as the tree.

Guilt and responsibility for others run like underground rivers in many of the stories. The narrator in “Adios” struggles with her part in Fred Poole’s death, having ignored her neighbour, the victim of a stroke, when she saw him wandering down the street. Even this guilt has its complications, for the Pooles resist medical intervention for religious reasons, and there is a delicious irony in the end to the narrator going to Mrs Poole’s rescue when she has a fall, and becoming “the answer to a prayer.” Angela in “Her Full Name was Beatrice” frets over her role in the tragedy of her friend Erica murdering her child, Beany, tormenting herself with “what ifs,” dreaming of alternative scenarios, addressing herself as “You.”

This is not to say that the tone is unrelievedly serious. There is a delightful sense of humour at work here, and even the most serious stories are leavened by wit, by captivating throwaway lines, by hilarious, incongruous detail. It is a reminder that we are dealing with humans and human behaviour seen up close: funny, sad, inadequate, tragic, venal, conflicted, desperate, sometimes even noble. This particular cartography is often entertaining, frequently disturbing, and always illuminating.

Julie Paul will launch The Pull of the Moon on Sept. 28 at 7.30 p.m. at Munro’s Books in Victoria.

Margaret Thompson’s new novel is The Cuckoo’s Child.

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