Book review: The Devil You Know by Jenn Farrell

Published by Anvil, 128 pp, $16, softcover

The Devil You Know is Vancouver writer Jenn Farrell’s second collection of short fiction, following 2006’s Sugar Bush and Other Stories. With these two successive books, Farrell effectively forges her image as a bad-ass version of Alice Munro. Like Munro, she’s a short-story writer who focuses on the lives of girls and women in small-town Canada, but Farrell’s characters get high on mushrooms and dabble in BDSM.

The title story in Devil centres on Cynthia, a teenager we meet at a debauched house party. Like many of the book’s characters, Cynthia likes to drink, swear, and fuck, and she does it all underage. But for all her wild behaviour, she’s no victim. Cynthia tires of her drug-dealing older beau, leading to a breakup where, instead of begging for her love, her boyfriend asks for “one last blowjob”. Cynthia denies him and walks off, expressing her ambivalence with words that are particularly evocative in their teenage inarticulateness: “I feel kind of sick, but also very tall. It’s weird.” For the women in this book, it’s a recurring sentiment when it comes to their relationships with men (and other women, too).

The least developed characters in Devil are all male. They’re mostly incidental to the plot, so this isn’t much of a problem—the only story told from a male perspective is “Pen Pal”, a twisted confessional where an anonymous man fetishizes a convicted killer unmistakably modelled on Kelly Ellard. There’s a disturbing satisfaction for the reader when the creepy protagonist ultimately envisions the Ellard clone asphyxiating him in a prison trailer.

Throughout the book, Farrell excels at capturing uncomfortable realities and mixed feelings; for this reason, most of her characters feel real. In “Grimsby Girls”, a series of short interview-style excerpts about how girls lost their virginity, mostly in totally underwhelming or awful ways, the narrator pointedly answers the question critics might have about how much of this is really fiction: “What if I had made some of them up? Would you be able to tell the difference? Would it matter?”

Probably not. What Farrell has created here will ring true for any girl who’s ever faked an orgasm or thrown up at a house party and continued on with life, undeterred—which is probably more of them than you’d think.