canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Atlantica: Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland
Edited by Leslie Choyce
Goose Lane Editions, 2001

Review by Mark Sampson

The first question an expatriate Maritimer such as myself would ask when approaching an anthology like Atlantica is: how accurately do these stories reflect the region as it really is? Do these pieces go beyond Centralist Canadian stereotypes and the region’s own tourism department simulacra to get at something truer and more honest about the people and places in this part of the world? After reading Atlantica, I can say that, for a collection that wears its regionalism on its sleeve, this book is an unmitigated success.

Editor Lesley Choyce has displayed impressive instincts in choosing the stories to include in this collection. He covers his basis well, providing samples from Atlantic Canada’s veteran writers such as Alistair MacLeod and David Adams Richards, as well as a healthy helping from the new or emerging guard, like Lynn Coady and Anne Simpson. Choyce, whose list of credentials is longer than some short stories, includes a piece of his own—a gutsy first-person narrative about a woman losing her husband to a horrible brain disease.

Often times, writing that is “regional” (a loaded term, which I hate to use because it detracts from the scope of many of these stories) tends to put a lot of emphasis on place and idiom. In Wayne Johnston’s excerpt “The Boot”, taken from his sublime novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, you hear the Newfoundland accent in your head as you read; yet “The Boot” does not resort to spelling words phonetically to the idiom in order to “signify” Newfoundland in every syllable. It is Johnston’s true gift that he is able capture voice and place in this way, yet call out to something universal. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a story like “One Saturday”, by Helen Porter. This piece is about life and death, old age and youth, and the effects of an abortion on the psyche of a female protagonist. It could be set anywhere, and doesn’t rely on its locale or vernacular to propel its narrative along. I like these kinds of stories best: stories that are incidentally set in the region I come from, but don’t flaunt their locality to tell a great story.

No review of Atlantica would be complete without heaping gobs of praise onto Lynn Coady. I often wish I could be hooked up to an EEG while reading her work, just to see what wonderful things her prose does to my brain. Her contribution to the anthology, “Batter My Heart”, is a prime example of why she is the reigning It Girl of Canadian letters: Coady teases us, taunts us and haunts us with her talent. Her characters live and breathe inside our heads, their voices crisp and authentic, making thematic connections that leave us gasping for air. If readers have not yet discovered her work, “Batter My Heart” is an excellent place to start.

The only criticism I have of the collection is this: readers who are voracious consumers of Atlantic Canadian writing probably won’t find much in this book that they haven’t read before. With an anthology of this magnitude, it would’ve been nice if Choyce had leveraged those credentials of his to get more previously unpublished stories out of these writers. But for readers who have had little or no exposure to the prose of the region, Atlantica is a great launching pad to find out what you’ve missing out on.

Atlantica champions not only literary unity but also political unity for a region that has had its ups and downs over the years. Choyce is a tremendous blessing to this single “nation” he calls Atlantica, and his work on this anthology gives us an honest and intimate voice that cannot be denied.

Mark Sampson was born and raised on Prince Edward Island and lived in Halifax for seven years, but is currently completing a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. He plans to resettle in Atlantica eventually.







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