‘Welcome to the Circus’ by Rhonda Douglas

Book Reviews

Welcome to the Circus coverReviewed by Lynne C. Martin

I close the book and weep freely as the rain drives down. Yet rather than depressing me, Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas is a joyful, whole-bodied read immersing me in a breathtaking range of human experiences. These stories— portraying the weirdness in the ordinary, daily beauties usually unnoticed, and the singular choices we make in response— take us inside the minds and hearts of widely varied characters.

Douglas writes compellingly in the voices of adolescent girls and boys trying to make sense of love, loss, and beauty; international aid workers in need of aid themselves; grown sons and daughters betrayed by their fathers; Mata Hari and her lovers on the eve of her execution; even a fallible, apologetic God trying to justify the failure of the Newfoundland cod fishing industry.

We meet an unnamed adult writing “Love Notes for Eighth Grade” giving advice and encouragement to her fourteen-yr-old self. In numbered sections with mottos such as “For every Dorkface, there will be eight Wendys,” the older self recalls examples of her fourteen-year-old resourcefulness in the face of bullying and sexual assault, and the help she found internally and externally when least expected.

In a very different voice and format is the story of Lisa the paleontologist, whose growing relationship with a living Neanderthal man near Drumheller makes her “miss being carved out, shaped new, seeing and hearing the world around me again for the first time.”

Then there’s Neil, a shy artistic boy so taken with John Donne’s poetry that he carves it into his skin in secret. Inevitably, Neil ends up in the Adolescent Psych Ward where a kindly therapist explains to Neil why he’s cutting himself. Of course he completely mistakes Neil’s motivation, leading the reader to ponder how the pursuit of art is so far outside the understanding of mainstream North American culture, as well as how commonly adults misinterpret the actions of kids.

Similarly, yet not at all, a teen named Sooky, who has lost her best friend and lover in a car accident, finds solace not in well-meaning adult solutions, but in relating to an elephant in a visiting circus. The story opens with Sooky being called into the school guidance counsellor’s office after taking pills she found at home. “Mr. A’s a nice guy,” and Sooky genuinely appreciates his concern for her, but he still misses the mark. Despite the pills, Sooky is no drama queen; her grief is quiet, bewildering, and off the map: “I just stare at him. Everyone thinks I’m just all about the accident these days, as if my whole life just stopped happening in that moment and it’s all I think about every screaming minute of every day. It’s not like that, except I don’t really know what it is like so I don’t say anything.”

Douglas’s main characters speak and behave with that kind of cliché-free authenticity, despite the circus metaphor in the book’s title. Each story is written in a style particular to its situation and people, offering the reader a voyeuristic peek at multiple oddities much like attractions at a freak show. Paradoxically, the strange specificity of each story makes her fiction ring true.

Yes, some of the situations are bizarre, especially the story called “Monday Night at the Porn Emporium,” told in the voice of the employee daughter of the business owner who matter-of-factly pimps out his family members. This story, like all good fantasy, uses an outlandish premise as the setting for social commentary, in this case exploring how family dysfunction is often normalized in the name of entrepreneurship. The video time countdown numbers at the beginning of each section add another layer of irony by hinting that perhaps this family’s situation can be viewed as a TV reality show.

Through subtle details like this Douglas invites us to raise a sardonic eyebrow at the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of human behaviour, even while it’s clear she feels affection for most of her characters. In the Neanderthal story, Douglas sets up an amusing competitive tension between Jake, the insecure professor of Romantic poetry, and the naked and hairy non-verbal Samson who loves Kraft dinner. Though Jake’s whining is pathetic as male chest-thumping goes, Douglas is not unsympathetic towards his anxiety. Her only cardboard “bad guys” are abusive males who serve as the source of some of the main characters’ conflicts.

Nevertheless, many of these stories connect to that core of truth distinguishing important writing from the merely facile. Her final story “Cancer Oratorio” deservedly won Prairie Fire’s 2010 First Prize in Short Fiction by describing in sections for chorale, recitative, and aria how various choir members grieve the passing of one of their dearest singers. Each voice is distinct and has its own agenda, but the painful process of letting go will resonate deeply with anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer.

Douglas relentlessly stays in the place where many writers will not go, describing what she actually sees rather than what we might expect. Years ago I took a drawing class which taught me to slow down my looking so that my right brain hemisphere took over the drawing process instead of relying on the left hemisphere’s stock symbols. Douglas writes like that. Having started as a poet, her prose uses that same magnifying glass’s slow panning to show us what is really there. Though her writing is smooth and supple enough to read quickly, you’ll want to savour it slowly to squeeze out all the rich juice.

Freehand | 192 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN #  978-1554812288




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Lynne Carol Martin

When she’s not writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays, Lynne Carol Martin tutors at Red River College and teaches English for Business and IT Professionals at the University of Winnipeg. She also runs a business called Clear Voice Enterprises, helping students and professionals hone their communication skills. Her monologue Good Enough was performed at Sarasvàti’s International Women’s Week Cabaret of Monologues in March 2016.