Friday, February 28, 2014

History Lessons by Cary Fagan

In general I try not to read short story collections for this blog, just because generally not every story is going to be set in Toronto (and sometimes only one in a whole book is). But then I pick up books and I don't know until I start reading them that it's a short story collection. So whatever, here it is.

History Lessons was a very quick read - I think there are only five or six stories/novellas and they all seemed to zoom by. The main theme I found was, as the title suggests, history, and the effect that our past - whether immediate or inherited - can have on our lives. The author does some impressive work writing from very diverse points of view, through first and third person narration and protagonists of different genders and ages. All of the protagonists were extremely well constructed and realistic, and it was easy to become immersed in each story.

The stand out story for me was "Happy Birthday to Me," about a woman planning a surprise party for her husband, and the guests becoming increasingly agitated as the husband is late coming home from work. The author uses a neat trick where we get quick glimpses of what various characters are thinking; if it were a film, it would involve a camera roving around from person to person with quick voiceover narration changes a la Scrubs. It was a bonus that definitely added a lot to the story and made it very relatable.

I enjoyed all of the stories, although each one ramped up to a potentially dramatic conclusion and then left itself dangling a little, which was frustrating. My preferred genre of short story is the twist ending - don't go looking for that here. None of the stories was predictable per se, but neither were they shocking at all. They are just well crafted vignettes.

A couple of the stories were not set in Toronto but the majority were, I believe. Toronto has a very "any big city" feel in them so there's not a lot of specifically Toronto flavour, but certainly they are worth reading to at least get a sense of Toronto literature, since the author is noticabely of here.

Over all if you like this kind of short story I would highly recommend the book - a quick but engaging read.

Four CN Towers out of five.

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