If you’ve been following the goings-on in queer Can lit, you’ll likely recognize this name: Andrea Routley. Just in case: Routley is the founder and editor of Plenitude, Canada’s queer literary magazine based out of Victoria. I’ve been really impressed with the quality of work that’s been featured in Plenitude so you can imagine my excitement when Routley contacted me to tell me about her debut collection of short stories, Jane and the Whales, published by Caitlin Press. Caitlin is a great press with a mandate both of publishing the stories of the Central Interior of BC and works by and about BC women.
Although I admit I feel it’s an uneven collection of stories, overall I think Jane and the Whales is a powerful, promising debut. At times it reminded me of Nancy Jo Cullen’s brilliant short fiction collection Canary. It’s less polished and definitely has a darker tone, but both writers share an attention to the small, intimate, everyday details of life and a knack for authentic-feeling characters. I think as Routley develops as a writer I can definitely see her moving in the direction of works like Canary.
As I said, Jane and the Whales is a dark book. I feel like I have a pretty high tolerance for depressing material, but at times this book was too much of a downer for me. Among the topics these stories take on are abortion, sexual abuse (and someone who never says anything about suspected abuse), children’s accidental deaths, and just generally people acting like assholes. I guess what I’m saying is that this collection didn’t leave me exactly feeling good about the world. Now, that’s not the only reason to read fiction, but in my reading I do like a healthy dose of highlighting the humanity in characters even at the same time as we’re exploring their faults.
For example, in the story “Other People’s Houses” there’s an awful character—especially awful, actually because he was so well-done and true-to-life. I totally know people like him and they bug the shit out of me! The kind of dad who, for example, tells his pre-teen daughter after she’s set the table “‘This isn’t the appropriate tool for spaghetti. Where are the spaghetti tongs?’” Then he tells her to go get them from the dishwasher and wash them before they can eat. He also says things like “‘It is not income that determines class … but class.’” What a tool! While Routley’s done an admirable job illustrating this character, he’s so terrible it’s pretty painful to read.
I guess what that story exemplifies for me is that despite, or perhaps even because of the quality of Routley’s writing, I found it really hard to connect with some of the characters in these stories. Not all of them, but some of them. It’s not that I haven’t read any fiction where characters that might seem highly unlikable weren’t made sympathetic—it’s just that that didn’t really happen to me with some of the characters.
There were, however, some stories whose protagonists really resonated with me. In “The Gone Batty Interpretation,” for example, a woman who works at a nature centre with children has just gone back to work after her daughter has committed suicide. In the middle of a game during which the woman is pretending to be a bat ‘catching’ the children who are the bugs she has just been teaching them about, she confuses the memory of her daughter with one of the children. It’s a heartbreaking, embarrassing scene which ends with her sitting on the ground, saying “I’m sorry” and waiting to hear the ghost of the sound of her daughter’s voice. Of course, this doesn’t exactly sound like a picker-upper, but it really was a moving story whose character’s grief was palpable and genuine and beautifully rendered.
And when Jane and the Whales is funny, it’s definitely a dark brand of humour in correspondence with the rest of the collection’s tone. At times, I found this black humour quite effective, like when one character tells us: “When I was a kid, a teacher told me that family was forever—that blood was thicker than water. She thought this was a comfort.” Ha ha ha. At other times, however, the situation in the story, like the father and his dismissive treatment of his daughter in “Other People’s Houses,” was just too appalling to be funny.
If dark material is your thing, or you’re just in the mood for that kind of thing now that the weather is a bit miserable, I would definitely recommend Jane and the Whales. If you’re looking for some biting insight into west coast characters of all different stripes and classes, pick it up. Also, if you’ve spent any time at the gay bar in Victoria (currently going as Paparazzi, formerly called both Prism and Rumours), you should absolutely read this book, or perhaps skip to the title story and ready yourself for a fantastical night of karaoke and sudden transformation of the bar into an underwater wonderland.