There’s a voyeuristic quality to Heather Birrell’s stories. The Toronto author seems to have mastered the art of writing about universal themes and subjects – marriage, family, motherhood, death, sex – in a manner both familiar and unsettling. Her prose is dense with detail yet fluid, carrying the reader into the inner workings of her characters’ carefully constructed lives. That’s where the sense of peeping comes into play: these people are so wonderfully accurate, so blatantly human, that to bear witness to their hurts and despairs, ecstasies and triumphs, elicits the same discomfort one feels overhearing the neighbours having an afternoon romp or catching a friend giving her child a smack on the bum in a moment of anger or frustration. Birrell peels back the layers of civility to expose the dark and messy bits we all hide, but she does so with such finesse that we are simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the intimacy of it all.
Mad Hope, Birrell’s second collection of short fiction (following 2004’s I know you are but what am I?), opens with the Journey Prize–winning story “BriannaSusannaAlana,” which recounts the activities of the three titular sisters on the day a murder is discovered up the street from their home. Birrell makes little of the crime itself, a rather Hitchcockian affair involving a man dispatching his elderly mother and burying her in the grounds of their apartment building in view of a playground. But the intricate portraits of six-year-old Brianna, 10-year-old Susanna, and 12-year-old Alana are mesmerizing. Birrell’s ability to delve deeply into the minds of children and present them in all their twisted glory is admirable, given that so many authors are prone to making their younger characters precocious and unbelievably saccharine. Birrell isn’t afraid to shine a light on how warped little kids can be as they attempt, often unsuccessfully, to process and reflect the barrage of images and information the world throws at them.
For instance, when Brianna plays with her dolls, rather than a boring old game of house, she has a boy doll (“Adam”) and girl doll (“Eve”) enact a bizarre, biblically themed scenario that culminates in Adam shouting, “BE QUIET OR I WILL PUNCH YOU IN THE VAGINA!” The scene is disturbing, but also oddly humorous. Not many authors can pull off that balance so well.
The lead story is the collection’s best, and also sets the tone for what follows. There is a lot of death in this book, but it is kept in the background. In “Dominoes,” the first of three linked stories comprising the book’s second section, Maddie, an aspiring writer, recounts a lesson in crafting a good narrative: “[M]ore than one death is not a good idea. It’s more weight than the story can bear. But the problem with deaths is that they line up like dominoes in the heart. Nudge at one, they all come clattering down.”
Birrell herself breaks Maddie’s rule, describing first the suicide of Richie, a childhood friend of Maddie’s brother, Jeremy, then noting the sudden death of their father. Both events inform the following two stories. In “Bye Bye Flangle Nuts,” Jeremy acknowledges how close his relationship with Richie actually was, and describes the aftermath of his father’s death. “Dingbat,” the strongest of the three, features brilliantly deadpan interplay between then 17-year-old Maddie and her mother: “‘I think I’m going to start having sex,’ I told my mother, who was stirring a carrot-curry soup on the stove. ‘Maybe we should get a dog,’ she said, without looking up.”
Despite all its messy beauty, Mad Hope is not perfect. “Forum: Second Trimester” ultimately misses the mark in its attempt to capture the tone of an Internet chat group for moms-to-be. It isn’t the storyline itself that is suspect so much as the presentation. Anyone who has ever engaged in an online forum knows that, at best, one person out of every dozen is capable of crafting a cohesive sentence; Birrell’s use of correct grammar and largely indistinguishable voices feels untrue in this context. Given the high calibre of writing in the collection, this iron-fisted grasp on proper language is difficult to fault, but it undermines the believability of the story.
Mad Hope is a bloody valentine to the city of Toronto, and its west end specifically. But the situations are universal: the characters resemble our own mothers, friends, lovers, and selves. And by maintaining a suggestively smirking tone, Birrell allows us to see the ugly side of life without being overwhelmed by its darkness.