Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Dear Leaves, I Miss You All, by Sara Heinonen

Sometimes one needs reminding that there’s more that can unify a short story collection than just the reoccurrence of characters. I often feel tempted to dump collections of short fiction into one of two boxes: either the stories overlap in very literal ways, with characters interacting with one another across tales to form a broader narrative; or each story stands monolithically alone, its own singular world that may, at best, carry thematic ties across the rest of the book.

So it’s nice to read a collection like Sara Heinonen’s Dear Leaves, I Miss You All, which shatters that simple schism and shows us a third way (and a fourth, and a fifth) to hold a book of stories together. That’s not to say there aren’t reoccurring characters in Dear Leaves. There are: they take the form of the delightfully dysfunctional but no less loving couple Barb and Benny, who gently (and humorously) battle one another for dominance in their marriage across several of these tales. But there is a larger emotional arc at work in Dear Leaves, a journey that Heinonen is taking us on to explore one of the chief preoccupations of our post-modern age.    

That preoccupation, of course, is anxiety. This emotion hums like white noise in the background of nearly all of these stories. For Barb, it is the anxiety of environmental catastrophe, an obsession of hers that plays itself out in stories like “Ultra”, “Night of the Polar Fleece” and especially “A Little Nut Thing” (which I had previously read, with great relish, when it first appeared in the literary journal Event.) For the characters in “The Edge of the World”, it is their tenuous grasp on a middle-class future, symbolized by the image of a growing sinkhole. For the narrator of “Walking Along Steeles after Midnight”, it is the anxiety of self-reliance, of being able to stand on one’s own in the face of relentless inner isolation.

What impresses most about Dear Leaves is the multiple ways this emotional arc exerts itself without merely being a quick thematic thread strung loosely between the stories. It’s as if Heinonen is taking us through an evolution of modern-day anxiety, hitting it from various angles and perspectives. Many of these stories do inhabit their own worlds that don’t necessarily align with other worlds in the collection. I’m thinking specifically of “The Bloom”, which is an almost supernatural tale about a woman who is dying because there is a tree slowly growing out of her chest.

There are other oppositions that harmonize rather than jangle with one another. Some pieces are long and detailed realisms; others are short and more elliptical. There are some stories about married couples in frozen Toronto, and others about singletons living in steamy Hong Kong. My single favourite piece in the collection, “The Blue Dress”, falls into that latter category. I love the way it undermines where my allegiances would naturally fall: it’s a story that is literally about a girl who leaves her partner for his best friend. But the emotional journey that the girl, named Nance, takes in the process of doing that illuminates yet another aspect of modern-day unease.

In the end, these stories point to the root cause of so much of this anxiety: a loss of personal agency. It is, again, something that crops up over and over in Dear Leaves, but without being heavy-handed. Even Barb, in all of her altruistic intention around protecting the planet, worries about how environmental collapse might impede her own journey toward self actualization.

If this all sounds heady, rest assured that Dear Leaves is also quite light on its feet, and deeply, deeply funny in places. In fact, I don’t recall the last time a short story collection won the Stephen Leacock Medal, but here’s hoping Heinonen’s publisher puts this book into contention for it. Readers will find much to love, and much to root for, in this hilariously unsettling debut.

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