Lynn Coady's award-winning book, Hellgoing , brings together nine self-contained stories that take a realistic and thought-provoking look at a wide range of human relationships in today's world. We are pushed or pulled into something like a voyeur's role, observing in close-up fragments of ongoing or evolving relationships between an array of distinct characters; be they as couples, with family or friends, or crossing paths in professional or casual encounters. Reading these stories can at times be a bit of a rough ride, rarely smooth, easy or pleasant. While they might leave us with a sense of unease they also stimulate us to consider more deeply the underlying questions and issues that the author raises. Are they a reflection of contemporary reality or, at minimum, of certain aspects of it? Among the comments on the book's back cover the National Post's quote reflects my own experience closely: "...There is a searing honesty here about humankind's inability or unwillingness, to make an effort at connection, but the author's own humanity rescues her vision from descending into despair or nihilism." I couldn't state my reaction any better.
At the recent Ottawa International Writers' Festival Lynn Coady participated in an in depth discussion on short story writing. The story from the collection that she read that evening, "Mr. Hope", has remained etched in my mind more than any of the others. It is written from the perspective of a young female teacher, returning now to her first school, who is reliving her childhood memories, her experiences in school and her first encounters with her teacher, Mr. Hope. Coady exquisitely captures the feelings of a young girl. Interweaving the vividly reimagined child's perception with that of the hindsight of the adult looking back, the author tells a story that not only conveys narrative tension and inner drama, she convincingly brings out the girl's emotional confusion and conflicts in a way that will, in some way or another, sound familiar to most readers.
Among the other stories, some characters stand out for me more than others, such as the nun in a hospital who uses her counselling to get an anorexic girl with a religious obsession to take "some food." The title story tackles another important and well-known subject: deep and lasting family tensions going back to the protagonist's childhood. A "reunion" brings them to the fore as if the decades in between had been non-existent. Events, however, demand a different response so many years later. While all stories are written from the distance of a third person narrator, they do often cut through the surface of the characters' 'normalcy' and expose what lies underneath.
Coady's stories focus more on the women's mental state of mind than that of their male counterparts. There is, for example, Erin who has discovered that "twenty-something" sex is no longer adequate (or never was) and her new partner is a willing if somewhat reluctant participant in the new excitements. Coady pinpoints many of the ambitions and anxieties that younger women experience, be they a publicity assistant whose constant texting might interfere with more important news, or a young author participating in a writers' retreat. While romantic love is totally absent from Coady's story collection, however, she is an astute observer of people and scenarios and her depiction of her central characters is not without a sense of humour or irony.