Short stories that dig beneath the surface


by Dorothy Speak. 
FriesenPress, 2021

Review by Anna Rumin

I first fell in love with the short-story form as an undergrad when I treated it both as bedtime reading and an easy measure of success as I was able to complete a story in one sitting. For the last hour of the day, I could step into another world, connect with a character, a setting, a conflict and, most often, less than 20 pages later, a resolution. Sometimes characters stayed, sat on my shoulder and followed me around, sometimes they didn’t, but the short-story form is one I return to over and over. Pseudo by Glebe author Dorothy Speak is a collection of 12 stories, some told in first person, some in third, all of them dealing with what as an undergrad I would have called the human condition: love, loss, death, relationships, family issues, marriage breakdowns, aging, second chances.

The characters in the collection are everyday people – they live in apartment buildings and move to new neighbourhoods, they question their choices, they lie, they keep secrets, some get second chances. In one story, a woman juggles the people in her life, their needs and wants, despite their backstories; in another, an 85-year-old artist struggles to accept his wife’s decision for medically assisted death while reflecting on a childhood framed by abandonment. And in other stories: a grandmother makes a decision to leave and start life on her own; a woman returns to her family and questions the rules of communication; a character is told, or perhaps reassured, that we are all on the brink of madness; a young man experiences love for the first time; a mother never forgets her still-born; an old man finds adventure and new possibilities on the bus; a cleaning lady shares wisdom found in grief. Do we ever truly know the people closest to us? What secrets and lies do we tell ourselves and when and how are we forced to confront them? What does it mean to listen, to really listen? What is it to know death? What is it to lose someone only to realize the hardest part of loss is that they are and will always be with us? This collection of stories reminds the reader that to know someone truly and really, to know ourselves truly and really, we have to dig far beneath the surface, we have to reveal what the sunlight otherwise won’t.

Speak’s love of language, style and design is obvious. Characters muse thoughts such as: “confinement has captured her in the role I always wanted her to play”; “whittled to our core, panned down to the gold”; “I may have loved them, I don’t remember”; “I forgot to do something with my life.” Opening sentences, like “Spring arrives, the ground breaking open like an over-ripe fruit, the air pungent with the smell of soil, of life-giving minerals,” and closing sentences, like “The two of us sitting there and the rain washing down the windows, both a healing bath and an absolution,” keep the reader reading.

For native Ottawa readers, the settings in the stories will be familiar – the affluent neighbourhoods, the private schools, the private ponds and lakes that are known by word of mouth, the new condos on the river, the colonies of cyclists in their bright lycra that overtake the city on the weekends, post-war housing, the cemeteries, the parks and “Always, on our street, you could count on the smell of flowers or fresh-cut grass or fallen leaves or barbeques.” And all readers will recognize themselves and the people we might not necessarily pay attention to in these stories that honour the exceptional complexity of what it means to be human, no matter who or where we are.

On my bedside table there is almost always a novel, a New Yorker, a book of poetry and a collection of short stories. I no longer read short stories as an easy measure of success, but I continue to love the experience of being transported into someone else’s life in a genre that demands precision on the part of the writer to reveal exactly what the reader needs, not only to keep reading but also to step into another life and experience what I know or better understand as the human condition. Dorothy Speak’s Pseudo did just that.

Anna Rumin teaches memoir writing at Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group (GNAG) and Carleton University.

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