The Roaring Girl

196 pages,
ISBN: 189589753X

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Keep Calm with Weird People
by Louise Fabiani

In one of the finest stories in this collection, "The Death of Brl", Greg Hollingshead introduces his first-person narrator, a child whose mother is prone to angry outbursts. It is a passage that expertly leads into the story, and suggests the raison d'tre of the entire book:
"My mother's rages did not stop being unpredictable, but I clung to innocence more dearly for that. I am talking about the innocence of the poker face, of the anonymous bystander, of the shining hour of a life without hope. I remember thinking at the time what a brilliant strategy this was. Virtue as disavowal. The armour of invisibility. How could I have known that was only the common custom in my country?"
This year's Governor General's Award for English Language Fiction went to Hollingshead for the twelve stories in The Roaring Girl, a collection of sometimes lucid, sometimes opaque prose. At his best, he is like the little boy in "The Death of Brl", ": a quiet, perspicacious observer, who barely disturbs the scene under scrutiny. Physics tells us that the observer always changes the observed, but Hollingshead comes very close to wearing "the armour of invisibility".
He has a sharp eye for detail: the irony of relationships, the subtle, unspoken meanings. But he is also a connoisseur of the quirky and the off-beat. Having seen more and more fiction writers grabbing this trump card, I read these stories warily.
The first two, "On the Side of the Elements" and "People of the Sudan", feature ordinary, decent folk who find themselves trying to keep calm when confronted with weird or clearly irrational people. The characters and plot twists in both are surprising and amusing. In the enjoyable "Rose Cottage", a man posing as a writer finagles himself into a quaint cottage on the same property as a house shared by an elderly, infirm woman and her cruel nurse. I am not a fan of "coming of age" stories, especially those featuring pre-adolescent boys, and the title story did little to convince me otherwise. Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly be a favourite story for many readers, if only on the basis of such epiphanies as this:
"Sooner or later after the boy had got used to a new place, he would catch a glimpse of it the way it looked when he first saw it, and then it was another place altogether, because his entry point of view and his interior point of view that living in it had created were so very different."
Hollingshead's dialogue tends to be spare, as if he occasionally needs a sharp break from the intensity of cataloguing human behaviour. These volleys of single words or brief phrases run through the least successful stories in the collection, such as "A Night in the Palace", a sad excursion from somewhere to nowhere. On a lighter, even farcical, note are "The Naked Man" and "Rat with Tangerine".
In "The Appraisal", Hollingshead manages to strike the perfect balance between serious reflection, punchy dialogue, and quirky characters. It is full of significant details and pithy remarks-condensed volumes of reflection that a lesser writer would have stopped the action to work out at length.
The Roaring Girl is an uneven collection and it's a shame. Many of Hollingshead's stories have not yet appeared in a book. Did the editor, perhaps, take the procrustean approach: forcing the selection into a sensibility of quirkiness and weirdness, rather than letting a sensibility or theme emerge from the selection? How else to explain the placement of the bland "The Age of Reason" with the excellent "Rose Cottage"? Although his distinctive voice is evident in every story, I am not sure that clean writing and the occasional unique slant on the world are enough for some of them.
In a radio interview the day after receiving his award, Hollingshead remarked that novels are more likely to get awards because they are easier to judge as a whole, whereas the quality of a set of stories can run the gamut and make summaries difficult. I agree. The Roaring Girl is not a simple book. But I certainly look forward to what the future will bring us from its gifted writer.

Louise Fabiani is a Montreal writer.


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