canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Mark Macdonald
Arsenel Pulp Press, 2001

Review by Mark Sampson

Iím never going to be able to mince garlic by hand again. Iíll have to go out and buy one of those idiot-proof garlic presses, now that Iíve read Mark Macdonaldís short story collection Home. This is because of a particularly gruesome scene in one of the opening stories, "Puss", where the nameless narrator chops off the end of his thumb while cutting up some garlic cloves. This hack-happy fellow ends up doing a lot worse to himself by the end of the story, but Macdonaldís description of that initial slice remains the most vivid:

"The cleaver went down on each lobe of garlic. Shuck shuck shuck shuck shuck. My old thumb got in there and wham! From the tip to the part just by my old nail, it came clear off but a strand, and hung there. The garlic stung Ö the cold tap water hurt. I got these cute kidís band-aids, you know, with cartoon characters. I put one on but it didnít stop the blood. It was sad and funny at the same time to see the little characters turn red from behind."

This is just an example of some of the truly macabre scenes contained within this little book, and I for one am glad to have read them. Macdonald gives us writing with teeth, and is not afraid to jolt us with both his descriptions and his form. The stories in Home have scientists tampering with their subjects, pastors losing their faith and finding a new covenant, and the psychologically ill telling their stories from the inside out. Through it all, Macdonald presents different spaces or conditions that play off one another, leaving it up to us as readers to decide which ones are true representations of "home".

The stories in the first half of this book are much stronger than in the second half. The best of the bunch is a piece called "Walls", where (another) nameless narrator comes to terms with his friend Ianís isolation in an old mansion that he has inherited. Ian is obsessed with repairing the structural integrity of the house and therefore can never truly live in it, which thus becomes a metaphor for the supposed fatalism of everyday life. Thereís nothing fancy about this storyís form; it tells a small story with big intentions, has some nice descriptive writing, and leaves us with an interesting message in the end.

Unfortunately, Macdonaldís style and content goes a bit soft by the end of the collection. The seemingly nonsensical endings to some pieces, such as "A Space Called Love", left me feeling unsatisfied. And the final (title) story "Home" lacks the crisp, vibrant prose I found in the earlier stories, and even includes this horridly cheesy line: 

"He loved this man, or part of him did anyway, some deep part of him tucked away in his spine, in his bloodstream."

These do not detract from Macdonaldís overall accomplishment of combining vivid writing with a flash of the horrific to create a short story collection that speaks to us in its own spooky, but thoroughly entertaining, voice.

Mark Sampson worked as a journalist and editor in Halifax, Nova Scotia before moving to Winnipeg in 2000, where he is currently doing an MA in English Creative Writing at the University of Manitoba.

See also Lori Hahnel's review of Mark Macdonald's Flat.








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