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Joan Sullivan: Ten stories from a nimble writer

Book cover
Book cover - Submitted

Welcome to the Circus
Stories by Rhonda Douglas

Freehand Books
$21.95  178 pages

Short stories are increasing in vogue, not just in popularity with readers but in prestige with juries: Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for her body of work; George Saunders the Folio for “Tenth of December” (although his most recent publication is the startlingly unconventional novel “Lincoln in the Bardo”).

Some writers, like Munro and Saunders, stick largely or solely to the prose form, but authors primarily known as novelists frequently venture into a short story collection. These sets of self-contained pieces are sometimes stand-alone, sometimes interlinked. And some test-drive some short fiction before committing to the slog of a full-length book.

The 10 stories in Rhonda Douglas’s debut are strikingly varied, thematically nimble, incredibly sure-footed even as they leap from topic to scene.

In “Nous and René Lévesque,” a trio of friends, “[w]e three girls, of Cupids born” are missile-focused on getting to Montreal, “where des choses très intéressants are always happening. Monsieur Levert believes tout le monde can speak French if we will just try and so only French is allowed in his classroom.”

The terrain shifts thoroughly in “Humanitarian Relief,” to Dadaab Refugee Camp. Lana is just arriving, the new doctor who “slots the details of each new world into one of two columns: Been There, Done That or Huh, That’s Interesting. Cholera — Been There. The Been There column weighs heavy inside her body, squatting toad-like just below her breastbone.”

Douglas plays with format in “Love Notes For Eighth Grade,” composing a numbered list: “2. Please. Lose the hat.” “3. It isn’t true. You just don’t know what beauty is yet. Well, the thing about Shannon is true, but this is just something to get used to: the world is full of Shannons.”

And then again in “La République de France V. ‘Mata Hari’,” a cache of found documents and footnotes as a man tries to puzzle out his father’s relationship to the notorious dancer and alleged foreign agent. “Awakened at dawn this morning in her cell at Saint-Lazare prison, the convicted spy Mata Hari is said to have asked permission to write two letters. Paper and pen were given to her and she gave the letters to her lawyer for delivery. Accompanied by the priest, Father Arbaux, and two nuns, as well as Captain Bouchardon and her lawyer … she was taken by carriage across Paris to the Caserne de Vincennes to face a firing squad, traditionally composed of twelve men.”

 “Still Life With Book” is etched with John Donne’s poetry. The central character is inspired and inscribed by Donne’s transcendent words. “Life seems exquisitely beautiful in very rare moments, and Nick has spent much time thinking about how to create more of these moments.” His essays towards this affects all those around him.

Then there’s love of an almost non-verbal tenor in “Sounds of Our Paleolithic Past,” a harmonizing between Lisa and a Neandertal fantastically and matter-of-factly discovered in the Badlands and destined for Museum display. Samson “named from a staff pool at the Museum,” is preternaturally sensitive to modern noise; he “leaned again the fridge, put his ear to the door, closed his eyes, and made a low sound in the back of his throat: Hmmmmmmmmm.’”

Another absurd yet lucid scenario is presented in “Monday Night at the Porn Emporium,” where characters are on a countdown to a threatened bombing. The police are concerned, as the group responsible, The White Brigade, though polite in its missives, has struck before. The business is a family one, and completely mainstream. As the investigating detective requests, “the detachment sure would appreciate if The Porn Emporium would sponsor our Humane Society fundraiser again this year. Your participation really gives it that extra touch.”

Then comes the story that gives the collection its title: “Welcome to the Circus, Sooky Baby,” where adolescent trauma, big top acts, and sweet, sweet smells mingle in the ring. “There’s a chain-link pen outside the back of the arena, the place where they usually dump snow in the winter, so it makes a huge round hill like the kind I played King of the Castle on when I was a kid. Inside the pen are two elephants, as big as Zambonis, so motionless it seems like they’ve been there forever. They’re out of place here, but must be ordinary somewhere else I guess, maybe under thick leaves in a quiet jungle.”

The penultimate story, “God Explains the Collapse of the Cod Fishery,” is the only weak spot — but then I just don’t like this particular conceit. The work concludes on a strong note with “Cancer Oratorio.”

Douglas lives in Ottawa but she’s originally from Grand Bank. She’s a new voice to me, and I say we should happily lay claim to her.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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