Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review: Mad Hope

Read 10/1/12 - 10/6/12
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of short stories that take a look inward and aren't always obvious
Pgs: 223
Publisher: Coach House

One of the things I like most about reading short story collections is the hunt for the connections. Sometimes, the authors make it extremely easy and connect the dots from story to story for you - every story might contain the same narrator (Jesus' Son); every story may take place in the same town (Volt); every story is a fantastical fable (A Hollow Cube...). Other times, the stories put on the appearance of being completely and confusingly separate of each other while hiding their ties just below the surface.

MAD HOPE is very much the latter. Grounded in familiar territory, Heather Birrell has created this incredibly tricky collection of stories that will either satiate or exhaust its audience. If you're a casual reader who appreciates a well told story, you'll find comfort and satisfaction in what she's written. If you're the type who wants to understand how these stories interact with each other - and they do interact with each other - you've got to read a little deeper to discover the connections that will allow you to put the book to rest.

Let's start with the cover. I admit that I love the green of the frogs against the brilliantly burning red background. It's really quite striking. And so the first question I ask myself is... why frogs? Where will they make an appearance in the stories? Will it be an obvious 'gimme' or is Heather going to hide this answer like an Easter egg? As if in response to the question, upon turning back the front cover, you immediately notice that the endpapers are designed to look like millions of little tadpoles swimming across the page. A few pages in and there is this oddly phrased quote about a frog by Anonymous. And in just a few more pages, you see that her stories are grouped together into chapters which are identified by frogs. (One frog - chapter one. Two frogs - chapter two.) And then, of course, there is the story that is titled Frog. That was pretty easy, right?

But it wasn't enough for me. I continued to wonder if there was a deeper significance to her use of the slimy green suckers. Frogs, as you know, appear all throughout our written history - in folklore and fairytales, most commonly. They are gangling and ungraceful and though they appear to be simple-minded, they are assumed to have a trick up their sleeve. They are usually not what they appear. A quick peek on Wiki reminds me of the old Looney Tunes cartoon where the man finds the singing, dancing frog and attempts to make a buck off of him by showing him around town. But the frog acts like a frog in front of the audience, donning his top hat and doing the high-kick only when he and the man are left alone. Another example would be the classic fairytale  prince who was turned into a frog and tricked the princess into kissing him, thus breaking the spell and regaining his handsome, arrogant human form.

But, alas, trickster frogs have no place within Birrell's collection. Heather's tricks are slightly less obvious than that. Her frogs, or the connections between stories that otherwise do not appear to be connected, are not so quickly identified.

As you read through the collection, you'll begin to notice that many of her stories revolve around children - siblings witness a murder, a mother-to-be miscarries, another mother-to-be decides to abort, a pregnant woman prepares for the birth of her baby. This similarity, the familiarity of the characters, their struggles and situations, gives birth to an unspoken undercurrent of human resilience and our ability, or built-in survival mechanism, to cope with and overcome just about anything.

This same sense of inevitability appears again in a set of stories, smack in the center of the collection, that are told from the points of view of a brother and sister - who each must deal with and share the news of their father's passing. Again, Heather uses her characters to subtly backlight the irresistible and difficult decisions we make in order to get back to life and move on. Because we have to move on. Because we must retain our mad hope.

I guess the moral of this review is that there are always connections to be found within short story collections, if you only take the time to look. However, you might also be chasing ghosts and grasping at straws that aren't even there, and forcing connections where there were never meant to be any, but then again, isn't that the fun of reading fiction? To take away from it what you will. Make it your own.

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