There's a whole academic discussion about what makes a short story a short story. Length, the obvious descriptor, doesn't cut it. If a short story is a brief narrative, how is it different from a fairy tale, a joke, an anecdote your great uncle tells every time the family gets together? Frank O'Connor suggests that short stories have protagonists who are outsiders. Hence the title of his book: The Lonely Voice. That would work for dee Hobsbawn-Smith's first collection of short stories, What Can't Be Undone: the characters in these stories, many of which have been shortlisted finalists for prizes, have been turned into outsiders by enormous losses. A twin brother can't manage his addictions; another brother dies when the quinzhee he's been building with his sister collapses. Wives die; husbands leave or die; none of the book's children (if memory serves) still have both parents. In a culture that has pathologized grief or that studies happiness with the desperation of someone trying to kick a drug habit, this certainly renders them outsiders.
But I have a different metaphor, one that is eerily appropriate for this wonderful collection. I think of stories structurally, as rich nodes of events that come out of a life that's been fairly pedestrian and that carry on into a future that may or may not be changed. But certainly in those moments of the successful story there is a collision of energies that pose burning questions that will not brook a character's refusal to answer. He or she can't say "Um...maybe?" For me, the best metaphor is that of a horse riding across country rather casually who suddenly sees before him or her a fence or a stream that needs to be leaped. A short story is like that moment when all the horse's energy and concentration are gathered together, when its past experience and knowledge is brought to bear as it gauges the challenge--and there's no shilly-shallying or indecision. Three stories in this collection involve horses. Hailey is the young horsewoman in "Nerve," and as she discovers, indecision in a story or dressage is deadly.
These stories are beautifully crafted. In "Monroe's Mandolin," a twin sister's despair over her brother's addictions is revealed through a sequence of beautifully-realized scenes in the bar she owns. He has been gone for some months when his mandolin, brought by their mother back from little town in Tennessee and reputed to have belonged to the great bluegress mandolinist, Bill Monroe, is offered for sale in her bar. There is no exposition, no stopping a great scene to fill in details about the past: the background we need is given as elegantly as Monroe used to play. All the tensions between Lise and her twin Cory, between Lise's desires and the life she is now living, are revealed as rhythmically as a horse's canter.
We also see one of the collection's preoccupations in this story: how do you help someone you love who doesn't want to be helped? How do you even broach the conversation about giving help? How do you give help to a wife who was once a dancer and now can barely move? How do you manage not to steal the independence of a sister to whom you've donated a kidney and whose health is a constant concern? How do you help your brother's wife and her son after your brother has been jailed for abuse? When help is accepted--when a young boy takes a lift from a mother who lost her own son to leukemia--the acceptance is a gift to the giver.
So is being asked to give help. One of my favourite stories, "Still Life with Birds," makes use of a world that Hobsbawn-Smith, an award-winning food writer who ran a Calgary restaurant, knows well: the world of the professionals who make us wonderful food. In "Still Life," Ariana has been called back from a food sojourn in France to see if she can donate a kidney to her diabetic sister, Violetta. The experience tightens their bonds, though Ariana doesn't worry any less over Violetta's health: she knows that organ recipients seldom live more than 15 years after a transplant. As well, the drugs Violetta takes to prevent organ rejection leave her prey to osteoporosis and other medical difficulties. As the story opens, Ariana has opened Bistro Etoile, "a deliberate recreation of the small lake-side cafes she visited in France." Enter Gordon, a young man who keeps bringing Ariana and Violetta cherry trees to plant; his attention to Violetta leads the narrator to comment that "This man's generosity is wearing down her worry-stone's hard edges." While the story gives me insight into the professional world of food and its constant pressures, the generosity of food also forms a lovely backdrop for the favour Violetta and Gordon will ask Ariana: to support their decision to marry and have a child, in the implicit knowledge that Ariana may someday have to be that child's mother. Standing by the lake, thinking over her response, another kind of stone altogether enters the story world: Ariana picks up "a smooth small stone that just fits within the cradle of her palm. A rapid release and it skips across the lake, one two three four five skimming arcs that the avocets ignore....She lifts her face to the birds, their impermeable bodies graceful in the air, their beaks pointing south. Their parabolic lives will bring them back in the spring. That much is certainty." The echo made by the stones is crisp and sure, pulling story and character and the moment for making decisions together beautifully.
"Still Life" is one of the few stories in this collection without a first-person narrator. Another of Hobsbawn-Smith's cooks remarks that her chef, Lance, has "taught me how to build nuanced layers of flavour as elegant as a debutante's ball gown." That same narrator, Stacy, notices "black gravel spitting like curses behind the car's rear tires." In a different register, Troy, the "pick-up man" of a story with the same name (and his role is both a pun and a comment on his life), notes that his nephew Aidan is a little hesitant about life: "Aidan gets out of the back seat slowly. I've noticed that, he don't run into things. He holds back and assesses the lay of the land. That sure ain't what I see in most of the teenagers who hang out near the drop-in centre where I work security. Some of them run toward trouble with both arms open." We hear Troy's socioeconomic place in the world, but also learn to trust his perceptions about people, all without comment. Here's the voice of Alex, a widowed playwright and the narrator of "The Good Husband": "At two AM, I'm settled in a comforter on Astrid's old divan on the balcony moon-watching.coyotes, madrigals in four part harmony, the late night sky ruffled with melody." The collection is full of such moments when language brings character and that character's worldview alive for us effortlessly.
This is a collection to be read slowly, in part so you can appreciate Hobsbawn-Smith's gift for voices, for the precise yet surprising turn of phrase that brings a narrator's frame of mind to life. The other reason for taking these stories slowly is implied by the collection's title, What Can't Be Undone The collection speaks to the inexorability of life, time, fate, and character--all of whom will have their way with us at those moments when life gathers itself to take a significant leap that looked so do-able as you approached--not much worse than the other difficulties you have faced. But suddenly the abyss, before you are quite on it, lets you see how wide it is, what challenges you will have to meet and how much you have to lose, how much you have already lost.