canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Walking in Paradise: Stories 
by Libby Creelman 
Porcupine's Quill, 2000 

Reviewed by Patra Reiser 

I read Walking in Paradise while sitting through a long train journey from Montreal, where I live, to just outside of Toronto, where my brothers live. As we traversed the Eastern Ontario country, winter dark and dirty, I made my way through 14 delicately crafted stories, each one invoking, or provoking, a surge of memories. The characters felt like a cast from the past. so much so that reading this collection was both familiar and alien all at once. 

Newfoundland writer Libby Creelman has coaxed from the pages a portrait of dysfunction that appears eternal yet not hopeless. A group of young people, in the opening story "Three Weeks," all connected either through bloodlines or drug ties, spend time on a marijuana farm waiting to harvest the fields before their illegal crop is detected. Rosanna has accompanied her brother Mike, after their mother once again has taken off with a new boyfriend. It is through Rosanna's eyes that the reader watches the unfolding events. 

As the days pass, they become edgier: 

Rosanna sat on the raised hearth, a good distance from her brother, since his mood, as the days passed, grew increasingly jumpy. The ashes and clumps of charcoal in the hearth behind her gave off a sharp metallic aroma. The mineral remains of trees. The smell of wood ghosts, cold, sad. Growing and living that would never be again. 

Notice her short choppy sentences and the proliferation of commas, effectively recreating the feeling of jumpiness of the characters themselves. Her subject matter of dysfunctional families, a popular contemporary trope, could be easily rendered tired or stale. 

Creelman, however, has taken an overused scenario and presented stories in a softly original way. Her use of landscape imagery, for example, sets the tone and illustrates the distance between families, like in the story Cruelty: "Lila can see the backyard, which is deep and narrow and suffers from a thick canopy of neighbouring trees so that even in summer it will be cold and overcast." 

At times however, her writing, while usually spare and present, verges on overkill: "His shoes wait side by side at the back door, smelling of leather, shoe polish, pain." I found this line odd and distracting. 

Apart from this minor complaint, Creelman makes a strong and memorable debut with her first collection, mining from the depressed houses and yards of mixed up families, something moving and elegant.

Patra Reiser lives in Montreal.







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