A collection, first published in Canada in 1997, that follows on the heels of Hay’s universally praised first novel, A Student of Weather (2000), about one woman’s friends and acquaintances, linked like so many pearls of wisdom on strands of razor wire.
The first two stories, “The Friend” and “The Fire,” focus on a friend in New York City, Maureen, the beautiful wife of a philandering, bisexual artist, who clings to the narrator, Beth, as to a lifeline, even as she refuses to admit that anything is amiss with her marriage. From this closeness born of desperation Beth finds no comfort; she pulls away, and finally moves away to Ottawa without telling Maureen, later hearing a horrific story about how Maureen caught fire while cooking breakfast one morning. “Hand Games” recounts the trials of Annie, Beth’s young daughter, as she persists in a mostly unreciprocated friendship with a girl who lives upstairs. As Beth observes the slights Annie endures, she agonizes over how to intervene, but her interventions ultimately make little difference, and Annie learns a hard lesson in what friends are for. With Leonard, in “Sayonara,” it’s a different story: He’s Beth’s former boss who once was in love with her, but courted her in such a diffident manner that she couldn’t read his intentions. She married and moved on, but years later they bump into each other in Ottawa; she finds that he hasn’t changed, and that she still hasn’t resolved her feelings about him. With a fight here, a terminal illness there, other friendships are chronicled and counted, leaving, as Beth says, “small change,” but the steady undercurrent of longing for something more fulfilling works powerfully to counter the accumulation of bleak imagery.
With its masterfully crafted tonalities, this analysis of friendship has a dark urgency that’s as instructive as it is unsettling.