Coach House Books, 220 pp, $18.95, softcover.
The first thing I loved about Heather Birrell's tight little collection of stories was her characters. She conjures up for us nine very different, disparate universes, and the humans she populates them with are all delicious.
In "The Golden Hour", an ex-convict and a mistress using an alias swap lies on a bus ride and stumble over beautiful truths by accident. Marion (aka Renee) realizes "what she is coming to understand is that often a story is just a glint: swift, shiny and vulnerable to vantage point."
In "Trouble at Pow Crash Creek" we get to meet a home-schooled child genius and his bunkered-up survivalist father and abused mother: "I was silent like a snake, considering...when I ran out to the hallway, Dad was already there, rifle in hand. Son, he said. And nodded. Then he padded into his and Mother's bedroom, leaving me to assemble the chunks of story left behind."
Birrell can artfully land a character on the page in 20 words or less. In "The Captain's Name Was Ned", my favourite story, "Dad said Kyra had legs like tree trunks and a mouth like a rip in a mattress." This is Maddie, who "was nine years old and had taken to squinting the meaning into things".
Maddie also describes perfectly the aching solitude of summer holidays: "I was never really doing anything that summer. My brother had just returned from Scout Camp. 'Collected kindling,' he said when Mum asked. She signed him up for remedial math for the remainder of July. I had refused gymnastics...and macramé."
Birrell has the telltale eye for detail that marks a great storyteller. Her characters are kids and adults, men and women, freakish and familiar, complicated and mundane. But I believed in every one of them. With I Know You Are but What Am I?, Birrell takes a playschool taunt and in nine stories turns it into a mantra that her characters use to reveal themselves to us.