In the introduction, the author calls herself a “book-based lifeform” which immediately struck a chord for me. This is a collection of thirteen stories, from some of the author’s earliest work to her latest, including the author’s Nebula award winning novelette. Each story is followed by author’s notes explaining the inspiration and and her intent.
“It’s no use pretending the world hadn’t changed. It changes all the time. Every choice we make, every person we meet, has the potential to transform our lives. When that happens, we adapt. Manage. Cope.”
Many of the stories are, despite climate change, age and all of our personally accumulated mistakes, hopeful. While the author doesn’t have children and doesn’t want children, a large amount of the stories seem to revolve around parenting. I’m not sure whether it’s because children are an easy stand-in for hope, as they are in “Two Watersheds,” or if it’s just because for so long children have been an accepted part of women’s lives. Many of the stories are queer, and especially lesbian, though there are some mis-steps, as when the narrator in “Skin City” assumes someone’s pronouns, even after being reminded why that’s not a good idea.
I have several favorites in the collection. “A Human Stain” is about an Englishwoman agreeing to be a nanny at a friend’s family’s castle in the remote German countryside. It’s the last story (and the Nebula award winning one) and absolutely deliciously horrifying. “A Study in Oils” involves an art retreat in an indigenous Chinese village, a killer, and a group of elderly artists. The detail about the village and the natural wonders around it was compelling and lyrical. The exploration of art and its abilities to express things unseen even to the creator jived with me, though I’m not sure what to think about the fact that the story was at least in part sponsored by the Chinese government. “Waters of Versailles” stars a social-climbing inventor noble in Versailles, whose claim to fame is, well, plumbing. But as in most stories about grasping for power, it’s about who is forgotten and endangered in that search for power. “What Gentle Women Dare” was perhaps my most favorite, following a 1700s sex worker and her meeting with the Devil in a church graveyard.
While the stories take place across a swath of time and space, many of them are distinctly Canadian in setting or tone. There’s an amusing trio of stories – “The Desperate Flesh,” “Alias Space,” and “Skin City” – that track the evolution of Toronto into a city famous for street burlesque shows. I found “Alias Space,” the most recently written story in the collection, especially interesting for its inclusion of mask-wearing and social distancing and the imagined effects of that on live performances. “La Vitesse” is about a school bus driver on a particularly rural route who suddenly has more to contend with than just gravel roads and snow.
“You seek to raise yourself above your station,” she continued. “Those who do have no true home. They leave behind their rightful and God-given place and yet never reach their goal. It is a kind of Limbo, a choice to begin eternity in purgatory even before death.”
As for the ones that didn’t work for me, the anthology opens with “Two-Year Man” which involves a man who assumes his wife is broken because she doesn’t want children. Honestly, I almost DNF’d the book after this story. It was not what I expected from an otherwise feminist and decidedly queer anthology, and I still wonder if I simply grossly misunderstood the story. “So You Want to Be a Honeypot” was a story from the POV of a James Bond-esque femme fatale but missed something in its execution for me. I have mixed feelings about “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill.” It has extreme content warnings but is extremely chilling and thought-provoking. I understand from the author’s notes it was one of her ways to work out her feelings over the disappearance of a classmate, but the author herself isn’t First Nations (nor is the character in the story), and I’d be interested in hearing from someone ownvoices about it.
Overall, this was an enjoyable collection, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for the author’s stories in the future.
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.