Author: Lynn Coady
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 240 pages
Published by: House of Anansi
Why I read it: Giller Shortlist
Where I got it: Library
Quick thoughts: A collection of short stories which truly fires on all cylinders.
Short story collections often remind me of music albums. Usually I can’t shake the notion that a good chunk of material was included as filler to meet some marketing criteria for length. But every now and then a collection is released where every single story (or song) strikes the right chord. That pretty much sums up my response to Hellgoing, Lynn Coady’s most recent collection of short stories.
I think what made this collection resonate so strongly with me is how the stories flirt with those parts of our lives which would usually remain unvoiced. There was an intimacy and introspection that made the inner dialogue feel tangible without ever being spoken aloud. Take for example this excerpt from “Take This and Eat It”, where a nun realizes in a moment of clarity that she has misread an interpersonal situation:
I’m startled. I have been imagining this whole time that she was making fun of me. I assumed we were speaking to each other in the same way my sisters and I always did — the hostility frothing up around the edges of our every sentence like scum on soup. We could spend entire holidays in a single house together, talking to each other like that, without a second thought, like picking and picking at your cuticles and being surprised when they start to ache and bleed.
Another excerpt, this one from “Clear Skies”, works as a great example of breathing life into some moment of inner thought:
She was standing there thinking that talking to her brother Wayne was like talking to God. Maybe this was the reason she still stayed in contact with Wayne, despite the futility of their conversations: the acid frustration it provoked. It was like talking to God — pointless, maddening and compulsive. Wayne didn’t make sense; he didn’t have to make sense. He didn’t bow to the logic of Man. Wayne’s wisdom was his unfathomable own — undreamt of in her philosophy. The Wayner was what The Wayner was.
Then there were other moments that didn’t so much express what I would never say aloud, but rather gave voice to some emotion deep within. This passage from “An Otherworld” stood out in that regard:
Just walking down the same hill made her stomach roil — provoked a visceral remembrance of sailing over her handlebars during the long, doomed oh-no time warp that hitting the speed bump had triggered. She had been playing a lot of computer games that month and, after crunching face-first to the ground, her instinct was to wonder: When did I last hit save? I can go back. It was that feeling of losing, of having screwed up badly in the game and just wanting to quit in disgust and start over.
Who hasn’t faced those moments where you wish you could just go back to some crossroads in life? But to couple that with video game logic, juxtaposing reality with escapism, for some reason that lit up my neural pathways like a fireworks display. So many pivotal moments from my own life flashed before my eyes in that moment, creating a surreal bond of empathy with Coady’s fictional character for a fleeting instant. That moment is what I’m trying to capture when talking about finding a connection with a a book or an author, and Hellgoing was chock-full of such experiences.
It was also nice to have a book so pan-Canadian, with story locales dotting the national map. From the nail-biting drive along the Pacific Rim Highway to watching icebergs just beyond St. John’s harbour, Hellgoing reads like a whirlwind tour of Canada. What’s more, Coady writes these far-flung people and places with authenticity and authority. Everything feels so real in her hands.
This ended up being my personal favourite from the Giller shortlist this year, and I was extremely happy to see it awarded the prize. What will be interesting, though, is to see the reaction of average Canadians who succumb to the “Giller Effect”, buying the book simply because it was recognized by a jury as the best in Canadian literature this year. Only time will prove the relative merits of the book, but for me Hellgoing will remain a high water mark in my personal journey through CanLit.
From the Publisher: With astonishing range and depth, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady gives us eight unforgettable new stories, each one of them grabbing our attention from the first line and resonating long after the last.
A young nun charged with talking an anorexic out of her religious fanaticism toys with the thin distance between practicality and blasphemy. A strange bond between a teacher and a schoolgirl takes on ever deeper, and stranger, shapes as the years progress. A bride-to-be with a penchant for nocturnal bondage can’t seem to stop bashing herself up in the light of day.
Equally adept at capturing the foibles and obsessions of men and of women, compassionate in her humour yet never missing an opportunity to make her characters squirm, fascinated as much by faithlessness as by faith, Lynn Coady is quite possibly the writer who best captures what it is to be human at this particular moment in our history.
Read what some other bloggers have said:
Curled up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea: “These are stories of flawed people with unusual problems and yet the characters come across the relatively few pages and make you like them. The theme that runs through the book are people whose inner lives are at odds with the world they inhabit… Coady uncovers the things that live deep down inside of us, the things that people keep hidden and she brings them to the light of day in her pages.”
Jules’ Book Reviews: “One of the aspects I enjoyed the most about this collection, is that there was a lot beneath the surface that wasn’t revealed until the end, and even then, the author buried it deep into the story, almost like a hidden meaning to the whole story, that isn’t revealed until the last sentence.”
Buried in Print: “Lynn Coady’s stories prick beneath the skin, and her characters pull back the tissue, so that something else – whole and fresh – emerges.”