A review of
by Lynn Coady
House of Anansi Press (2013)
We are all going to hell–or so they say–in a tightly woven basket. But is this a fate saved for after death or the constant state we live? Lynn Coady’s book Hellgoing is a collection of short stories of people experiencing their own personal hell, if only for a short while. Each story is a glimpse into the lives of diverse people from all over Canada. People with depth and purpose and people whose past and present are in conflict. I was hooked from the first two lines, “Jan salutes you from an age where to be an aficionado is to find yourself foolishly situated in the world. Where to care a great deal about something, no matter how implicitly interesting it may be, is to come across as a kind of freak” (3). This witty language is carried throughout the first story and by the end I couldn’t wait to experience the rest of the book. The book goes on to explore people who try not to care, or at the very least, remain indifferent, to their own personal hells, but who only succeed at fooling themselves. I think Coady says it best in the story “The Natural Elements” when she writes, “it seemed only Cal was aware that the moment the thing came free of the hook, it would fall backwards, shattering on top of both their heads” (160). Like Cal, the reader is watching the obvious unfold while those closest to the calamity are oblivious to the consequences their actions will eventually create.
Despite what could be a gloomy set of stories, Coady creates nine very different worlds in which gloom rarely enters. Yes, each character is incredibly dysfunctional–who isn’t–but they drink, laugh, avoid and over-analyze the same way most of us deal with strife. Each world felt honest, like I had been dropped into lives already in progress and when the story was over, these lives would continue on. Some of the people I was invited to peak in on include: a newly married couple annoyed with their fully paid for destination wedding because the groom can’t spank his bride in the bondage style they have grown accustomed to; another couple, Kim and Hart, whose conscious decision to be in love has left Kim missing the man Hart was before she fell in love with him; and one of my favourites, a nun who does(n’t) care about the girl starving herself in the name of God.
Coady’s writing is fresh and her characters are intriguing. It’s easy to see why this book was not only nominated for the 2013 Giller Prize, but the winner. With honesty and ease she fills her stories with the simple complexities that make up life; the kinds of experiences that seem so pertinent in the moment they happen, but are often forgotten about. Moments like the one in “Mr. Hope,” where a young girl, Shelly, tells how she “discovered [she] could read inside [her] head. Everyone else in my class could only read out loud, and not even well . . . I gasped: Teacher, look! And held up the book to my face and said nothing” (195). Coady’s writing had me laughing out loud, reading passages to my partner, and empathizing with unsympathetic characters. This is a book we should all make space for on our bookshelves; that way, if we are slipping slowly into hell, at the very least we’ll have some interesting people to take with us.
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