Alice Petersen, a Canadian/New Zealander who lives in Toronto, has had stories in Geist, The Fiddlehead, and other magazines, but All the Voices Cry is her first collection, published this spring. It has a degree of originality and reality that is both relatable and refreshing. Since Petersen won the David Adams Richards Award in 2009 from the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick for her manuscript, the book’s quality should perhaps be no surprise.
When I started the collection, I was pleased to discover each vignette within was an average of around five pages. A busy schedule was not an obstacle to enjoying my reading. One segment at a time was all I needed for the book to slowly seep into my mind, resonating long after I finished.
Petersen throws a mishmash cast of characters into a variety of unusual yet perfectly realistic situations. With several characters, she creates casual relationships between lives that stand alone, but also add up to the sum of a collection that holds itself together in its own little world, parallel to our own.
The main glue holding the stories together is an underlying theme of internal struggle: a decision to stay or go, in some sense or another. Starting out in “After Summer,” the narrator watches her father choose to stay in a relationship with a step-mother she isn’t fond of, sees her brother choose to move on into a different lifestyle with teeth “enough for television,” and must decide herself whether to stay or go in the limbo that is her own life. In “Among the Trees,” Jan is faced with the decision whether to stay with or leave a man who can only give her half his love, and with her decision traps herself for years. “Salsa Madre” features a mother leaving the decision to her son whether to be in her life or not. The protagonist of “Neither Up Nor Down” is Penelope, a disillusioned wife at odds deciding whether to stay with or leave her self-centred husband. Later, in “Neptune’s Necklace,” a woman is faced with the choice of whether or not to keep living after the loss of her children, and her decision leads to some rash behaviour.
Petersen shows her experimental side by writing each vignette from a different perspective. We see not only the mind of the current narrator, but also different views of others previously encountered. Information is released gradually in this manner, and it requires more time and effort for readers to fully understand characters. What results is a somewhat retroactive attachment to already-read vignettes. Also coming along with the regular perspective changes is more distance created from some characters than from others. For instance, in “Champlain’s Astrolabe,” Brian, one of the few male characters with a first person perspective, is much harder to understand than other characters like Jan or Penelope. His thoughts seem less intimate, and less real. While a clear decision is presented in every story, it is hard to tell whether Brian is making a decision for himself or for his sheltered son, and no turning point seems to be reached. The same can be said of Norman in “Mrs. Viebert’s Prognostication.” His thoughts and actions seem arbitrary and disorganized, and it is hard to follow or connect with him as he strives to avoid a prophecy made to him in his youth.
This doesn’t stop Petersen from bringing to life each and every short story with her fresh prose style. One particularly striking passage appears in “All the Voices Cry”:
How richly endowed with feeling, how proper it seemed to me at that moment, to hurl avocados in times of passion and of rage. The sunlight descended through the canopy of trees in blue yellow shafts, illuminating the bright thistledown of the Rock’s hair where he stood blocking the doorway. She meant to get him, the throw was hard, but passion warped the trajectory. Sailing past the sculptor’s ear out the screen door the green missile landed on the rock in front of us, its froggy innards slipping out from beneath the tough skin pushed awry.
Another example of Petersen’s vivid style stands out earlier in the same vignette, as the narrator Freya says, “Czech gave his English a glinting edge that could cut my polite Canadian vowels to shreds in an argument.”
Petersen’s almost strange observations create a collection of realistic stories about loss, love, restlessness, and freedom— above all, it is a collection of decisions. Written in easily-managed chunks, All the Voices Cry could be read in spare moments, or, as the easy prose tempts you, all at once. The decision is up to you.
Biblioasis | 160 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1926845524