‘Mad Hope’ by Heather Birrell

Book Reviews

Mad Hope coverReviewed by J.E. Stintzi (published by May 17, 2013)

Mad Hope is Toronto author Heather Birrell’s second collection after I Know You Are But What Am I? (2004). Stylistically Birrell’s prose is well crafted, tight and lacking superfluity, as well as injected with just the right amount of humour. Her stories often involve universals–coping with grief, pregnancy, or the loss of innocence. The stories also contain casts of well-realized and thoroughly drawn characters through which she shows a particular knack for portraying strong women as well as realistic and, quite honestly, fascinating young characters.

Mad Hope begins with Birrell’s Journey Prize-winning story “BriannaSusannaAlana,” the one that I’d heard of before reading the book. Her portrayal of youth is best exemplified in this piece, where we see an interwoven story of three sisters (each about two years older than the last) involving loss of innocence and revolving around a local murder. The youth of her stories are not brainless or hollow; they really seem to have personalities of their own in ways that much of the fiction I’ve read doesn’t seem to manage.

They’re gripping as well as daring, and the way Birrell draws them is satisfyingly sympathetic, as if these are the same kids you’ve met or seen walking to school every day. They’re realistically, and fearsomely, headlong; their actions are both unexpected and yet completely believable, like Brianna shouting while role-playing with dolls: “BE QUIET OR I WILL PUNCH YOU IN THE VAGINA” or Alana going off with the local punks (who only want one thing) almost completely without question. They have a refreshing depth, and I suspect that Birrell’s experience as a teacher and mother has provided her with a large amount of insight as fuel for her writing. As I read I believe that I’m seeing something fresh yet true.

Another of her stories that I felt was particularly well done was the third in the collection, “Wanted Children”. The story involves a couple trying to busy themselves in an attempt to cope with a recent miscarriage, and they end up tourists travelling in Ecuador. The journey and the despair in the story has an oddly Hemingway-like feel (something like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” meets “Hills Like White Elephants”) and includes some excellent portrayals of nature in the contemporary world. This passage from “Wanted Children” is a great example of the control and descriptive power of Birrell’s voice in its stride:

Out of the corner of her eye, Beth caught sight of a small black airborne shape, a scrap of red. And there it was: everything familiar, everything home, dogged by its Ecuadorean shadow, its strange tropical double. Here: a red-winged blackbird darting from the shelter of a shrub. And there: a toucan decimating a small, hard fruit with its unlikely beak. Here: a pair of squirrels trapezing through the low branches of a maple. There: a monkey grooming his mate, bold and fastidious, perched on his very own Amazonian awning.

Birrell’s prose is polished throughout the collection and her stories often feel like a large steak dinner, the kind you order because you’re quite aware of what you want and what you’re going to get: there aren’t any tricks or frills, and therefore there really isn’t any danger of being left frustrated by dissatisfaction. The majority of Mad Hope is satisfying in the same way, so that you get to know a great deal about the characters, and the narrative voices are often upfront about articulating their problems, and by the end you feel like you’re done. You feel like you’ve finished with the story.

But the thing about steak dinners is that they sometimes feel too easy, almost like you’re settling for it because it’s safe. I had time to wander around with Birrell’s stories waiting in the corner of my frontal cortex, and the more I thought about them the more I began to think that maybe they could be too much like a steak dinner and not enough like some kind of strange, risky, experimental dish. Most of the stories made me feel like I knew exactly what was what, and feel full of universal, apparent and explained miseries and complications to the point that the stories don’t stick like some by more ambiguous and elusive writers. The flavour is too apparent; reflection is more remembering exactly than discovering.

Charles Baxter’s essay “On Defamiliarization,” in his book Burning Down the House, seems to help me articulate my gripe with Birrell’s fiction. In the essay Baxter talks about fiction and the problem of fiction being too familiar. For example, when talking about a story a student of his workshopped, Baxter says that:

the story’s initial surprises began to seem less wonderful, even though its details were excellent, and the story was never anything but truthful. But the story had begun to read itself too early, and before very long it was always and only about one thing, with the result that all the details fit in perfectly. All the arrows pointed in the same direction. When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story. It is too meaningful too fast. Its meaning is overdetermined and the characters overparented. When writers overparent their characters, they understand them too quickly. Such characters aren’t contradictory or misfitted. The writer has decided what her story is about too early and has concentrated too fixedly on that one truth.

This is how many of Birrell’s stories felt to me. They were satisfying in the way that they took me where the arrows were pointing, and everything seemed ready and willing to fit together as if it were meticulously mapped, but they were like a steak dinner with red wine, they went too well. Birrell seemed, many times, to be too familiar with her characters. She knew what they were, and where they were going, and therefore the stories have an over-determined feeling to them.

As a foil to Birrell, take a look at the stories of Raymond Carver, perhaps the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which carry and leave the reader precisely where she didn’t know she’d be – somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere strange, somewhere wondrous and mysteriously incongruous. It is for this reason that I loved “Wanted Children” and “BriannaSusannaAlana”: at the end of the stories I was lost, and I left the stories still wondering in the same way Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance” or “Viewfinder” made me wonder. I prefer a story that I can read and read and never quite get.

In the end I suppose it comes down to taste. Do you like steak dinners because you just really like steaks, or do you hate them because you are vegan and only ingest the ambiguity of Raymond Carver? Birrell’s stories are very well written, and often times, no matter how I might say that I prefer a story that is a bit more ambiguously fascinating and minimalist, they succeeded in getting me invested to the point that I didn’t care how later on they might feel overdrawn – a bit too complete. But that’s like saying don’t eat a large steak because there’s a possibility it may send you into a food-induced coma only upon digestive reflection.

Mad Hope is certainly a valuable collection of stories, and for my personal favourites: “Wanted Children,” “BriannaSusannaAlana,” and “Dingbat” (a conventional seeming, yet strangely moving story of grief), I’ve no option but to recommend it. Even if you want, as I felt obligated, to find some of the writing a bit too finished to stick in you, at the very least you’ll be able to appreciate the excellence of Birrell’s details. Birrell is a frustratingly satisfying writer, and if only for her particularly strong grasp on representing youth, one worthy of investigating.

Coach House | 232 pages |  $18.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1552452585

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J.E. Stintzi

J.E. Stintzi is a young Winnipeg writer and occasional visual-artist/illustrator.