By Nancy Jo Cullen. Biblioasis, 192 pp, softcover
The title of Nancy Jo Cullen’s debut story collection refers not to diamonds or islands, but to the bird in the proverbial coal mine—the one whose sudden death is an omen of even worse things to come. This is a bit misleading. It’s certainly true that Cullen, a poet who lives in Toronto and Kingston, has no shortage of testy characters and awkward family conversations with which to fill her stories. But any larger catastrophes are left entirely off the page.
In “Ashes”, a man uses the impending eruption of Mount St. Helens to distract himself from his wife’s coming-out as a lesbian. The title story involves a nosy mother trying, and failing, to avoid embarrassing her teenage son as she drives him and his date to the movies (“I didn’t mean to imply you’re slutty,” she says to the girl). “Happy Birthday” starts with the narrator planning a party for her 83-year-old mother and ends with her fleeing the scene and hitchhiking to Banff instead. Each of Cullen’s stories is admirably but lightly sketched, with enough juice to fill its pages, though nothing to make it stick in the reader’s mind much longer than that.
Sometimes the existing sticking points aren’t the good kind, either. The appropriately titled “Regina” ends this way: “I was going to buy a Greyhound ticket to take me as far from the west coast as possible, which would probably be some hick town like Regina. Don’t think the joke was lost on me.” And what, exactly, is that joke? That Regina isn’t actually a hick town? That its name sounds like female genitalia, which any first-grader would be only too happy to confirm? The rest of the story provides no clues.
Other pieces fare a little better. “Valerie’s Bush”, for instance, is about a middle-aged woman’s first visit to a waxer. It’s motivated by a bout of embarrassment in the showers at a hot-yoga studio, and Cullen withholds a great detail until the very end: that Valerie only attended the studio in the first place because she got a gift certificate. That one bit of happenstance instantly anchors the rest of the story.
In all, though, Canary is not unlike its namesake: small, colourful, and only too quick to take flight.