An undercurrent of the surreal pulses through 10 linked stories.
Fiction writer and essayist Miller (All Saints, 2014, etc.), whose work appears in Best Canadian Short Stories, gently examines the lives of men and women in their 60s and beyond, haunted by guilt, regret, and loss. Widows or widowers; unhappily married, never married, or divorced; parents estranged from a child: All are lonely, often bewildered, burdened by the pain of their past, and seeing only slim possibilities for happiness in their future. Connections with animals prove purer, deeper, and certainly less fraught than relationships between humans. A retired teacher, whose domineering wife was hit by a car while jaywalking, suffers more from the death of his beloved beagle than the loss of his spouse (“The Last Trumpet,” “Crooked Little House”). A man yearning for love becomes entranced by an octopus floating in an aquarium who seems, uncannily, to know his heart. In “Witness,” a widow strains to feel warmth for her taciturn son. When he discloses that he has been diagnosed with breast cancer, she impulsively “wants to cover and warm him” but is unable to touch him, much less offer words of comfort (“Flesh”). Yet all is not bleakness and melancholy: A “failed writer with a useless degree,” begrudgingly supported by his wife, finally wins her encouragement. In the title story, the author of a novel based on a love affair that ended inexplicably suddenly frees herself from self-recrimination and longing. Several stories examine the intersecting lives of survivors of a murder: the victim’s friends, family, and the murderer himself. Most chilling, and enigmatic, is “Olly Olly Oxen Free,” whose central character is a 65-year-old woman who believes that at the age of 8 she was responsible for her friend’s killing. During the search for “the lost girl,” she learned “that to be found is to be forgotten. To be still missing, on the other hand, is to be forever kept in mind.” Her obsessive guilt generates hallucinatory visions that waft into other characters’ lives.
Sensitive portrayals of the fragility of love and ubiquity of need.