For Rover Arts
Still hot on the heels of her Giller Prize nominated novel The Antagonist, Lynn Coady returns with Hellgoing, her first short story collection since 2000’s Play The Monster Blind. These nine stories will quickly transport the reader into familiar Coady territory: troubled families, big city vs. small town drunks, pregnant teenagers, strained amorous relationships, the literary world and devout Catholics. It feels great to hang around with such a varied cast of Coady folk again all at once. Long-time readers will notice, however, that Coady’s settings have shifted west just as she has. No longer do we see the rich Maritime dialogue of her earlier work; instead, many of her characters are west coasters with names like Rain, Hart and Ames, ex-hippies, writers and academics.
In all of Coady’s novels, except for her debut, she has written from the point of view of a male narrator (and has done so convincingly). However, in this collection eight of the nine stories are told from the point of view of women characters. In the title story, Coady writes from the voice of a forty-something feminist who is struggling to fit in with her family after her mother’s death. The acerbic wit of the woman’s father, and the relationship between him and his son will remind readers of Rank and his caustic dad Gord in The Antagonist. In “Wireless,” Coady skillfully depicts functioning alcoholics, as she writes in the voice of a female journalist who meets a kindred spirit in Ned, a burly musician from Newfoundland.
A couple of Coady’s stories bring to mind other great women writers. For example, in “Take This and Eat It,” Coady writes from the perspective of a nun who tries to talk a young anorexic religious fanatic into eating some food, and finally convinces her to eat the body of Christ. The story’s dry humour mixed with themes of religion and blasphemy is suggestive of the great Flannery O’Connor. Moreover, in “An Otherworld,” Coady tells the story of a soon to be married couple with a fetish for S&M, and its tone is reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill’s first collection of stories Bad Behavior. But in the end, the writer Coady reminds us most of herself, as she mines the same ground and themes of her earlier work. For example, the engrossing “Mr. Hope” harkens back to her debut novel Strange Heaven, and is written from the perspective of an apathetic woman who gets pregnant as a teenager.
The collection’s strongest story, “Dogs in Clothes,” deals with the world of publishing and a young publicist who tries to drown herself in her work rather than deal with the fact that her father is having a serious operation. Coady handles the juxtaposition well, giving her narrator compassion, while her sly worldview and clever turns of phrase never let the material get too sentimental. The story is compelling, yet feels imperfect, as it tries too hard to be subtle. And overall, this seems to be Hellgoing’s biggest flaw – the attempts at subtlety and imagery to tie a story together are arguably lacking.
Every story in the collection is an absorbing read, but many of the endings could have been stronger. This is a minor complaint because Hellgoing is an engaging collection of short stories from a writer at the top of her game. And these stories will serve us just fine as we wait for what Coady truly excels at – her novels.