October 5th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *Light Lifting*

There is pleasure in liking something other people like too–who doesn’t want to stand for an ovation for something great and think, “All these people are feeling what I’m feeling.” Which is why I was so happy reading Alexander MacLeod’s *Light Lifting* in the midst of the of all the wonderful press the book has been getting. It was a pleasure to nod and agree to all the praise–it’s not hype if it’s true. And I’m not really sure I can add much to the general consensus that this book is excellent, but it’s that shared ovational feeling that makes me want to try.

It’s no secret that I thought I was going to like this ahead of time. The first story–and some say the strongest–in the collection is “The Miracle Mile,” which Lee Henderson, Camilla Gibb, and I chose to include in The Journey Prize Stories 21. I love that story, as I do all those in JP21, but since I’ve read those pieces (and another dozen that almost made it) more times and with more intensity than I’ve read perhaps anything ever, I’m afraid I don’t have much more to say. “Miracle Mile” is a brilliant story about passion finely channeled into long distance running, and as many times as I’ve been over it, I read it again in the collection (because when I read a book I read every word, including the copyright page; is that weird?) and it’s still brilliant.

It was exciting to keep going this time, though, and find that the next story is completely different. “Wonder About Parents” is written in choppy elliptical fragments, way out of chronology, and a reader just has to work it out for herself. And it makes total sense–the narrator is an exhausted young father coping with three kids and a houseful of lice, looking back on a time when things were far worse. The prose reads like the thoughts of someone so tired, looking back on something terrible that has been somewhat softened by time and distance. The unusual prose style also keeps what is essentially a story about parents’ fierce and baffled love for their kids from becoming even a tiny bit sappy. This is my favourite part:

“Delousing. Then rinse. Naked kids, braced between our legs, standing under the shower. Facecloths over their eyes and mouths. Don’t swallow any of this water. Spit it out. Spit right now. A scar on our daughter’s stomach from before.”

Choppy, gross, a snag of memory on something the reader doesn’t understand, no setting off of dialogue–but, it’s so sweet and funny, too! It’s that “Spit right now!” that kills me.

It’s silly to pick a favourite story in a collection this uniformly strong, but because I always do it, let’s say it’s the title piece. A grim, detailed, slow-moving story about brick-workers in the summer, “Light Lifting” ends with a horrific depiction of brutality that I was convinced I had never seen coming. However, flipping back to the beginning (I do that sometimes when I’m freaked out by an ending), I found that it was all there from the start. How could a story that starts like this end any other way but brutal?

“Nobody deserved a sunburn like that. Especially not a kid. You could see it right through his shirt. Like grease coming through waxed paper. Wet and thick like that, sticking to him. Purple. It was a worn out, see-through shirt and the blisters he had from the day before had opened up again.”

Shudder–no wonder I tried to forget about that as quickly as possible, but how great is that prose? So exact, so precisely something you can see. (Thought: didn’t Pasha Malla have a great gross moment with sunburn in *The Withdrawal Method* too? What is it with short story writers and this topic?)

Even if this collection weren’t near as good as it is, I would probably still like it for the care it gives the subject matter nearest my own prose-writing heart (currently): work, how it’s done and how people feel while doing it. You can tell so much about a human from how she or he relates to the work at hand. This bit about working on a van assembly line is from “The Number Three”, which some have said is the weakest in the book. Maybe it is, but it’s still pretty stellar:

“People outside think people inside must hate the machines, but it’s not like that. The Local has to fight for every job, but precision is precision and a person working on something likes to see it done right. When he watched those hydraulic shoulders rotating, lifting 1,300 pounds and holding it perfectly still, always within the same range of a hundreth of a millimetre, he felt something, but it wasn’t hatred; it was more like confusion or a stab of deep-down uncertainty.”

This collection blew me away, start to finish.

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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