“The collection consistently does what the oeuvre does best: communicate intense emotion with force, give life to characters that struggle with their circumstances, illuminate the universal through the specific and the particular, and turn the commonplace into art.” Globe and Mail
“[The anthology] amuses, astonishes, and enlightens; it is a delicious cacophony of voices and engaging stories . . .”Books in Canada
The Journey Prize Stories is Canada’s most celebrated annual fiction anthology, presenting the best stories published each year by some of our most exciting up-and-coming writers.
Among the stories this year: Desperate to reinvent himself, a disgraced diplomat on what will be the last assignment of his career goes in search of a woman from his past in Eastern Croatia. As a teacher begins to unravel in the aftermath of a school shooting, a series of surprising encounters with her former students reveals their differing degrees of resiliency. Bench presses and Wonder Woman comics create an unexpected intimacy between a teenager and her Ukrainian-language tutor, a former female champion weightlifter. After his junkie uncle moves into the basement to hide out from his dealer and get clean, a lonely boy’s longing for a male role model threatens to lead him astray. When a famous author finds himself embroiled in a sex scandal while on his book tour, he discovers the only person he has left to turn to is his handler, a woman with secrets of her own. Cultural tradition gives way to modern-day Japanese efficiency when a long-married couple attend a meeting of Concerned Parents of Unmarried Offspring, a speed dating event for parents in search of spouses for their adult children.
The stories included in the anthology are contenders for the $10,000 Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. The winner will be announced in fall 2010.
Writers select their most polished short stories to submit to journals. From what they receive, the journals' editors choose what they feel are the most surprising and gripping stories to publish, then winnow those published stories again to find those they consider most worthy of inclusion in a national anthology. That's when the packages show up in the Journey Prize jury's mailboxes – this year, filled with seventy-two nuanced, deeply imagined, and sharply written pieces of short fiction.
What a pleasure to read so many stellar explorations of a challenging literary form. What an education, too. And what a terrifying challenge to look at what the best literary editors in Canada consider the best stories, and to try to choose the best of those. The pleasure and education far outweighed the terror, but still it was daunting. Brilliant short stories can be brilliant along any number of metrics – realism or strangeness, elegance or blunt simplicity, tight plotting or sprawling authenticity. Comparison is fraught and dubious at best. All we can do, whether in the role of judge, teacher, or simply happy reader, is to consider what the writer was trying to achieve, how well he or she succeeded in that goal, and how excited the reader is about that success.
One terribly exciting success, in our opinion, is "The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale" by Daniel Griffin. This subtle and complicated story of art, love, and lust moves forward on the grim trajectory of death, but also draws haunting life from its central character, Skylar, and his admission to himself of all he truly feels, and longs for. His son's illness renews their relationship and their uneasy intimacy, full of envy, rivalry, and fierce affection for beauty. Griffin has taken on considerable challenges in portraying the working lives of artists, and has done so with amazing, and heartbreaking, force.
Adrian Michael Kelly's "Lure" is also a story about a father and a son, but Kelly's is an altogether different art, full of the simple intensity of a child's observation. Kelly doesn't trouble the reader with anything but the moment as the boy sees it. The drama inheres in a child's anxiety over pleasing his father, over the life of a frog, and the taste of a sandwich. Although "Lure" does have a climax of adult pain, it is the boy's perceptions and tensions that dominate, and it is to Kelly's infinite credit that this seems not a limitation but an illumination.
To continue with family stories, Sarah L. Taggart's "Deaf " is told from alternating perspectives of a mother and her young daughter, both missing a sense of so many things in their lives. The glittering percision of Taggart's language allows for both the humour of children bickering over ketchup and the quotidian tragedy of adults ground down by both hope and disappointment. Taggart never diminishes her characters' lives of canned tomatoes and Hungry Hungry Hippos, nor does she lionize them or excuse their bad behaviour. She just achieves that incredible literary summit of bringing them to life.
The gift in all of these stories lies in the adage of showing rather than telling. Particularly rich in this regard are those stories that immerse us in specific histories or geographies, making setting integral to and inseparable from the events and emotions of the characters.
Yasuko Thanh's "Floating Like the Dead" takes us into a little-known and painful chapter in Canadian history. Here, the few remaining inhabitants of a turn-of-the-century colony of Chinese lepers off the coast of b.c. spend the last of their days clinging to something as futile as hope. The limits of language, racism, and poverty have already defined their immigrant lives. Their alienation becomes complete as their bodies rebel and repel, and they are exiled to die in isolation. They must use their declining strength to battle a rugged geography they cannot beat. The forest is primeval and eternal and the western breezes across the Pacific can only remind them of the China of their youths. Thanh strikes that difficult balance between depicting bigger worlds and worlds within, and uses the resonances between the internal and external to subtle and graceful effect. This is a story of brittle beauty, which gives as much room to the unspoken as the spoken.
In "Highlife," Paul Headrick similarly addresses imminent death, the silences that precede it, and the sounds that surround it. A husband and wife, together for twenty-six years, become unglued from each other in the face of the husband's illness and the anger that consequently possesses him. He is a lover of music – an academic, a radio host, and a critic – making a pilgrimage of sorts to Ghana with his wife. He is looking to hear highlife music in its original context – buoyant life-affirming sounds – but he and his wife are largely silent companions on this trip; there is little he is compelled to voice aloud. Against the heat and confusion, the dancing bodies and the music, his life – and her life in relation to him – are coming to a painful end. In this case it is the contrast between internal and external worlds, the disconnect between them, that gives the story its poignancy, isolating the characters from each other and the world around them.