In her first collection of stories, I Know You are But What I am I?, Heather Birrell seduced readers with her ability to get under the skin of diverse characters and evoke their worlds in rich, telling detail.
In her new collection, Mad Hope, Birrell puts her talents on display once more, exploring characters whose reasonable expectations of the world have been devastated by sudden death (sometimes violent) or other tragedies. The losses her characters experience leave them yearning for alleviation of grief, pain or even regret.
In Wanted Children, for instance, Beth and Paul spend years trying to conceive a child, only to miscarry once they do finally conceive.
To distract themselves from a world in which everyone is "obsessed with achieving the supposed to," they travel to Cuyabeno River in the Amazon basin. But when Beth encounters a village girl holding a nameless infant, she finds herself longing to adopt the child.
In My Friend Taise, Thomas, whose partner, Joe, has recently jumped to his death from Vancouver's Capilano Suspension Bridge, emotionally supports his pregnant friend Taise and her adopted son Anton (whose birth parents were murdered), as if to provide himself and them with a sense of security and family, delaying his inevitable loneliness.
In Frogs, Vasile Dinescu, who worked as a doctor in a Ceausescu's pronatalist Romania and who now teaches science in a Canadian high school, wants to correct his past behaviour – the tragedies he participated in – by helping a desperate student seek an abortion. While Birrell allows her characters to yearn for what or who is missing, she does not intrude upon their difficult journeys and supply them with happy endings.
Cuyabeno National Park, Bloor West Village, Étienne Brûlé Park, Vancouver, a Toronto public pool – these are just a few of the settings Birrell makes tangible with precise, sensual imagery. In Dominoes, Maddie, reaching out to her brother who retreats from the family after his friend murders a gay man, describes an escapade in Toronto's High Park: "then you rode through ravines to where the brush is thick on the bank and there is an eerie privacy for a place so close to the well-tended public path. Beaten-down reeds and crayfish, a stink like breeding."
In almost every passage, Birrell achieves a seemingly effortless originality and accuracy. In BriannaSusannaAlana, a story about three sisters grappling with the fact that a murder has occurred in their neighbourhood, Alana "zipped like a cursor between a row of gleaming parked cars."
Some of her characterizations are so arresting in their exactness they caused me to pause. In Frogs, she writes, "Naadiya Abboud was a dark brown girl, a Somali Muslim, slight of build, with a smattering of tiny pink blemishes across her chin, wide brown eyes, heavily lashed. She wore her rose-coloured hijab most days and green high-top Converse tucked underneath her dark denim jeans." Naadiya shines on the page as an individual, herself and no one else.
Throughout Mad Hope, Birrell employs her exceptional gift for narrative to depict characters grappling with absences or deaths of one sort or another. While some might accuse Birrell of repetition or rehashing of themes, my sense is that she is convinced this is how the world is: one upset after another, a continual choice between despair and hope.
In My Friend Taise, Taise remarks to Thomas, "Just living … it can be an accomplishment, can't it?" Birrell's vision, perhaps, is revealed through Taise's words: life thwarts, steals and disappoints, and the decision to keep going, to put one foot in front of another, might take all of our strength.
Kelli Deeth, the author of The Girl Without Anyone, teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto.