Quill and Quire

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Nothing Looks Familiar

by Shawn Syms

The stories in the debut collection from Toronto writer, editor, and critic (and frequent Q&Q reviewer) Shawn Syms, draw back the comforter to reveal the tattered, blood-stained sheets beneath. That might seem like a forced metaphor, but it suits the collection. While Syms’s stories generally revolve around some form of violence – physical, psychological, emotional, or some combination of the three – they are rooted firmly in the complexities of character, often with a strong domestic bent.

Nothing Looks FamiliarIn “Family Circus,” for example, the narrator, a mother and meth user who works for low-level forgers in a squalid apartment, has plans to escape with a chunk of money and her children before everything goes tragically wrong. In “Four Pills,” Adam’s night of petty theft and drug use with his friend Shaggy is upended thanks to the quartet of roofies in the title.

Syms writes with a lean, parsed style, plain-spoken and transparent, which lends a sense of urgency and allows easy access to the emotional core of the stories. It also, unfortunately, leads to a certain amount of compression: too many of the endings seem little more than rushed summaries, especially in comparison with the careful narrative groundwork laid down earlier in each piece.

That said, Nothing Looks Familiar gains strength as it goes on, shifting away from grittiness to something more psychologically complex. In “The Eden Climber,” an aging woman struggles with living in a care home alongside her older sister and her own demons. In the final, and finest, story, a stopover on a road trip leads to complications for Beth, a young wife and mother. This is Syms at his best, building a world and its characters from a minimum of words, exploring moral complexities and contradictions with an unflinching gaze that deftly transfers the weight of choices and regrets firmly onto the reader, rather than belabouring them within the text.

It’s an impressive piece of work, and a powerful crowning touch on a satisfying collection.