Humour and grief flicker through Priscila Uppal's Cover Before Striking

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      Cover Before Striking
      By Priscila Uppal. Dundurn, 228 pp, softcover

      Thirteen accomplished tales give Priscila Uppal ample opportunity to highlight both the flexibility of the short-story form and her own varied interests. While the Toronto author’s focal points are traditional enough—family, love, marriage, death—the distinctive treatment she bestows on each illustrates the breadth of any given theme and Uppal’s singular talent for exploring it.

      She fashions a beguiling fable about a dying old man and his three less-than-dutiful daughters in “The Man Who Loved Cats”; another, “Sleepwalking”, is narrated by a cheating woman’s disgruntled feet. And technical prowess and poignancy are highlighted in “Recipes for Dirty Laundry”, a claustrophobic family history told from four points of view. A humorous episode, “Blind Spot”, traces the determined steps of a bewigged woman spying on her philandering husband (nicknamed Half-Assed Moron and Scumbag), before she decides to confront his current amour. Light-toned too, “Three Days Left” traces the fraught home vacation of an ad exec who undergoes a meltdown when facing the well-appointed jail cell his suburban life has become.

      While moments of humour flicker across many of the stories, Uppal’s affinities often lead her toward sombre topics.

      Considering death and grief from left-field vantage points, “Wind Chimes”, “Vertigo”, and “At Your Service” portray a few of the myriad ways that the living cope with loss. In these intriguing scenarios, Uppal manages to pinpoint moments of levity and anguish as survivors strive to make peace with unchanging brute fact.

      Uppal’s also drawn to women verging on the downward spiral into madness. Memorably weird, “Mycosis” describes the routine of an insular office worker who forms a protective, maternal relationship with the mould spreading in her bathroom. Its Twilight Zone companion, “The Lilies” describes a tipsy suburban mother’s hostile—and worsening—relationship with some newly planted back-yard flowers. Unsettling but cinematic, the 38 diary entries of the title story enchant as a seething recovering pyromaniac records her boring and secretive days in the psych ward, while hinting at the harrowing events that led to her incarceration.