Middle Aged Boys & Girls / Diane Bracuk
Toronto: Guernica, c2016.
This is a sleeper -- an unexpected read I hadn't heard much about, but that cute cover and clever title caught me (more girls!). I really enjoyed this short story collection. And perhaps that's because I left it at work, and read the 12 stories bit by bit over lunch hours, with plenty of time between stories to think them over. A good way to approach collections, at least according to Mavis Gallant who famously said:
Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after
another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book.
Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.
In any case, Bracuk is a skilled writer, who has put together a collection of stories written over the span of a few years (many award winning). This book is that dreaded word.... accessible! But it is. The stories feature those at middle age who are facing a loss, a shift, perhaps even a crisis, and at this point their behaviours seem to revert back to childish habits. Revenge, pettiness, insecurity, jockeying for status...it all reappears.
Bracuk's writing is smooth and wry; she skewers some of her characters but never cruelly. She highlights the weaknesses and more unlikeable side of many of her characters but does it in a way that allows us to reflect on them and see our own faultlines rather than sit in judgement of their choices. The title really captures the essence of the stories; those of us in middle-age who like to think we've evolved may find ourselves regressing to high school emotions unexpectedly in the face of midlife upsets. Did I just admit I'm middle aged? Certainly not ;)
Each story was nicely contained, with enough to engage and satisfy a reader - intriguing characters or a clever situation - I enjoyed each of them. The first story, "Shadow Selves", traced the relationship between a woman and her friend, who was a large girl and very comfortable with it. It was a strong start to the book, and had thematic resonance with my recently read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. Great literary discussion going on between these stories.
There was only one story that I wasn't completely taken with, called "Prey", about a woman in Poland and a conman. It felt a little vague in comparison to the strength in all the other stories. Oh, yes, except for the last one - is "Doughnut Eaters" a story or an essay? Bracuk won the Prism International NonFiction Prize for this one in 2015, so I'm kind of assuming it's nonfiction. Still an interesting piece but a bit of an odd fit for this collection of fiction.
In any case, this was a very enjoyable find from a small press that I haven't read much from before. I like the design -- it is eye-catching -- and I really liked Bracuk's voice. I'll be watching for more.