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Red Girl Rat Boy

by Cynthia Flood

Journey Prize–winning short-story writer Cynthia Flood has a new collection, her fourth, and it showcases her narrative sensitivity, historical range, and courage in using foul language.

This relatively slim collection of 11 stories features a large wildcat, domestic troubles, and memories of the West Coast’s extreme left in the 1960s and ’70s. “Blue Clouds” and “Dirty Work,” for example, recount class struggle and the sex lives of “contacts” and “comrades,” but they are more anthropologically interesting than examples of stunning short-story technique.

Flood shows significantly more range in stories like “Addresses,” “One Two Three Two One,” and the title story, which engage the author’s playful and tender sides. In “Red Girl Rat Boy,” for example, a school-age girl is obsessed with red hair. She clips photographs from magazines and covets the hair of the girl who sits in front of her in class. This obsession is arbitrary and also believable; such are the ridiculous predicaments that people get themselves caught up in. It ends badly, of course. So does the marriage in “Addresses” and the motherhood in “One Two Three Two One.”

But the gold here is not in the endings, which is counter-intuitive for a genre in which they are normally considered key. Flood spreads out her narrative nodes (as Douglas Glover would say) evenly. The story “Such Language” begins: “Fuck you, the message tape said one day.” The poor wife and mother at the story’s centre is distressed. Yet the story is told retrospectively: the first-person narrator is already beyond it all. Flood presents the crisis as both fully present and miles away. We get reflections on the ancient nature of tape-message technology and hyper-anxiety about the source of the message’s aggression. The result is that we don’t anticipate the conclusion so much as pay attention to the journey.

As we have come to expect, Flood’s stories reward attentive reading. Realism is the dominant technique, but there are also quirks that bend the reader’s ear and excite. Carol Shields used to talk about female storytelling that avoided the “classic” duality of climax and release. Flood’s stories are Shields-type stories: multi-orgasmic. Ahem.