‘The Third Person’ by Emily Anglin

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Andrew Woodrow-Butcher

Toronto writer Emily Anglin’s short-fiction debut showcases a strong and distinctive voice in nine quiet, perfectly strange stories. Straddling the line between realism and uncanny dreamscape, The Third Person has a tone that is singular, consistent, and very involving.

That tone is immediately set by the first piece, “Eilidh,” which introduces many of the book’s recurring motifs: the University, the details of a job, unfamiliar buildings, inscrutable intentions. Anglin consistently focuses on atmosphere over plot, while pivoting between the humdrum and the enigmatic. “Eilidh” is wryly centered on the gulf between the absurdity of bureaucracy (protagonist Miranda’s job title, for example, is “Specialist, Wellness and Personal & Professional Development”) and an equally absurd existentialist dilemma (the mysterious Eilidh needs Miranda’s help, she says, because she has “developed an obsession with looking”). The strange, brief meeting between Miranda and Eilidh occurs amidst rumours of unusual violence on campus, a history of the university’s brutalist architecture and gardens, and the discovery of a door that Miranda had never noticed before. What happens in this story is clearly subordinated to the series of ambiguous implications generated by setting, situation, and the effects of Anglin’s steady descriptions on the imagination of the reader. The Third Person is a book about the unsettling potential of the everyday.

One of the most successful pieces in the collection is the story “Fortified Wine,” which again combines straightforward elements into something quite rich and compelling. Vera is apartment-sitting for an absent friend, when a pretty proselytizer knocks on the door and strikes up a compelling conversation. As in “Eilidh,” the story here is not focused on narrative events, so much as atmosphere. But in this piece, Anglin’s technique becomes almost Symbolist. She deploys a potent network of images – wine, stained glass, old statuary, and a mysterious redhead in a green dress – which shift from familiar to strange, from malevolent to friendly, from banal to profound, and sometimes back again. Just as Vera’s absent friend insists her name means “truth,” while she knows it is “the Albanian word for summer,” we are at once invited to interpret all of these signs, and shown that they definitely bear more than one reading. Though “Fortified Wine” does have some moments that come across as unintentionally brusque, overall it omits just the right amount of detail to generate questions rather than answers.

The Third Person clearly bears the influence of the work of Kafka. Not only because Anglin’s characters live just this side of magic realism, and not only because of the book’s focus on the strange details of jobs, apartments, and the like. Anglin’s sense of humour is also similar: dark, subtle, and possibly not intended to be funny at all. But, especially on re-reading, the sheer absurdity of these stories can’t help but elicit a chuckle or two.

The Kafka connection also shines through in the final story of the book, “Alma.” Here, much like in The Castle, the protagonist has been hired by a mysterious town on an undefined contract. As Theresa arrives in Alma to start her work, once again we tour a bizarre college campus, where all but the music building burnt down years ago, and where, somehow, she is expected to have her office. As the citizens and the town itself are introduced, the narrative becomes a puzzle that is missing more than one piece. Again, the effect is both mundane and dreamlike, and the story lives largely in hints and suppositions.

Though there is something fantastical about the feeling of The Third Person, these characters all live in our world. Anglin’s stories show how the bizarre is always a matter of frame, position, or perspective. The Third Person shows off Anglin’s mastery of a particular kind of story, and her confident storytelling leaves us wanting much more of the same.

BookThug | 160 pages | $20 | paper | ISBN# 978-1771663663

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Andrew Woodrow-Butcher

Andrew Woodrow-Butcher has been a Toronto bookseller for about two decades. He is the Director of Library Services for The Beguiling Books & Art, and one of the organizers of the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival.