canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Quick
by Barbara Scott
Cormorant Books, 1999

Review by Harold Hoefle

In Barbara Scott's debut story collection, The Quick, she never shies away from what is bleak in life: the wasting effects of age, sundered relationships, human and animal cruelties, teen death. Yet the characters never cave in to that bleakness. Scott, born in Saskatoon and now living in Alberta, imbues her protagonists with a prairie hardiness, an ability to size up their pain, get into their car, "open her up ... and [aim] the leaping ornament at the open road."

In five of the stories, the kitchen becomes the locus for important rituals and events. A daughter recalls the care her mother and grandmother took when styling Easter eggs, a middle-aged woman wows her husband with Tillicherry peppercorns and tenderloin, a grad student's romantic life begins over a chili dish garnished with coriander and jalapenos. Food preparation becomes a metaphor for the violence of relationships both romantic and familial. The peppercorns are "crushed", the tenderloin "deep red"; the coriander "chopped" and the jalapenos "minced". Such metaphors do not wash over you; it is only near a story's end that their resonances surface.

While the careful sensory detail and metaphoric overtones of Scott's kitchen scenes recalls the Cape Breton kitchens in Alistair MacLeod's stories, like his work, hers can also be read as social history; specifically, the Ukrainian immigrant experience in Saskatchewan. In Scott's opening story, "Oranges" -- a finalist in two fiction competitions, and broadcast on CBC's "Alberta Anthology" -- she shows how a stoical bearing links four generations of women. The narrator, Blane, notes the disposition of her great-grandparents and admits her own stoical tendencies. Still, amid the heavy fatalism which attends such an attitude, she can remark to herself: "As my mother has said -- and probably her mother before her -- we do what we must. But I will dare what I can." Such a statement indicates the personal growth and self-knowledge, vis--vis family, which Scott's protagonists strive to achieve.

Her sure handling of various blue-collar and low-income jobs -- herbicide sprayer, lifeguard, waitress -- recalls The Anarchist's Convention, a story collection by John Sayles. As in the American's work, in Scott's stories a job often symbolizes what is happening in a character's life. The female grad student killing weeds in "How to Talk to Plants" slowly learns how violence to the natural world reflects human violence; a waitress's contemplated violence to herself -- breast reduction -- echoes the sexual abuse she gets at work.

Structurally, Scott is impressively flexible: she uses first-person, second-person, and third-person points-of-view. Her protagonists are women in six stories of seven; the exception is a convincingly colloquial male teen lifeguard. One weakness in the collection is Scott's overuse of vignettes. Almost every story is broken into numerous sections, some as short as three sentences; such a technique puts pressure on each vignette to be dramatic, but too contrivedly so -- sometimes the result is a story whose dramatic crescendo becomes staccato.

This critical concern aside, Scott's collection of short fiction is deftly written, expansive in its thematic concerns, and wise in its understanding of our pained lives.

Harold Hoefle teaches literature in a Montreal high school, and his story "Spray Job" appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of The Nashwaak Review.







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