Penny Dreadful

March 14, 2009

438Shannon Stewart
Signal Editions, 2008

In Penny Dreadful Shannon Stewart dives head-first into the world of the lurid and dark. We’re talking the real grime and grit: pig-farms, prostitution, sex, and violence are the fabric of inspiration in this horror show. Stewart takes the story of serial killer Robert Pickton and his victims, women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and spins it into a collection of poems that captivate just as much as they disturb. Using the story of the missing women and gaining inspiration from our fascination with all things sensational, Stewart pumps out poems that are at once perceptive and vulgar, tough as nails, yet heart-breakingly vulnerable.

Tabloid fodder fuels the book’s headline-influenced titles, and the freaky and bizarre seep into even the most innocent lines. Much of the book’s punch comes from Stewart’s ironic rendering of the gruesome as mundane, and her daringness to package the disappearance of so many women as quotidian. What results is a commentary on our ability to absorb the abnormal, how quick we are to dismiss.

Lots of things go missing every day:
keys, watches, teeth, sunglasses.

The women in Penny Dreadful turn up everywhere: on pig farms, in the speaker’s house, the ice cream shop, far away cities, exotic spas. They taunt the reader with their sexuality, rearrange households, hold relay races, form communities. And always they are strutting, putting themselves on display, selling themselves. The women in this book are not delicate creatures, they are tough and independent, yet they turn up dead, victims of animalistic violence. In one poem entrails, bones, and blood are transformed into perfume, lipstick, and shampoo. There’s something eerie about the way that Stewart plays with femininity and death in these poems, and how close we feel the speaker is to these women, like they have invaded more than her house. Equally unsettling is the interaction between female, male, and animal, continuing the age-old struggle between power, sex, and violence.

Where a man
meets a woman,
bone and blood
will out themselves –

Aside from the Robert Pickton case, Penny Dreadful uses the surreal, and even the grotesque, to comment on the contemporary world, and hold up a fragment of what ails us. Although it is the poems’ crude subjects that make them humorous and smart, these very same ideas, when pushed to extremes, make the writing difficult to sit through. Stewart’s cleverness is lost at moments when her message becomes too forceful. Her tone sometimes teeters over into the register of voices we’ve all heard before: a five-part exploration of pejoratives comes off as more than slightly Riot Grrrl, and in Bête Noire the speaker sprouts a tail and slowly metamorphoses into a furry rodent. If Stewart tends, at times, to tread the beaten path, she more than makes up for it with her darkly humorous scenarios, and wild imagination. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009. Purchase

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Chase and Haven

March 4, 2009

books_chasehaven_1550Michael Blouin
Coach House Books, 2008

Chase and Haven is a nonlinear narrative that jags from one fragile moment to another, trying to assemble an image of broken childhood within its dark constellation. Together, the fragments tell the story of siblings wedged together by a sad and violent childhood. Modeling his novel after the patterns of human memory, Blouin moves the story from character to character, spanning undefined periods of time, as he visits and revisits different moments in the lives of Chase and Haven and those that ripple around them.

Growing up in a trailer in small town Ontario, Chase and Haven tiptoe around the moods of their abusive father, an angry drunk whose rages are unpredictable and fierce. The intuitive Haven does everything within her power to protect her younger brother, hiding food, finishing his homework, and trying to keep him out of their father’s path. The novel cuts from the dismal details of childhood, to the children’s escape, and moves forward into an equally somber adulthood, haunted by the past, and far from free of misery.

The novel offers little respite from this somber tone. Even the peaceful moments are tinged with the melancholy film that hangs over everything: finding solitude in an empty closet, Haven unconsciously digs a hole into the plaster wall; an older Chase watches his lover sleeping and contemplates how he will leave her. Violence is everywhere in the novel, from bloody beatings at their father’s mercy, and accidents with knives, to a surprising and gory end. Blouin works hard to maximize the violence in unexpected places; grown-up Haven studies to become a doctor and the book is peppered with the gruesome imagery of corpses she is made to examine as a student.

Blouin assembles a dark and compelling novel that strives to attain something greater than other tales of neglect and abuse. By weaving between childhood and adulthood he hints at the bitter tinge that taints a life forever. By avoiding linearity he mimics the way memory builds around the layering of painful instances. The result is that the mystery of plot is stripped away and the reader is able to absorb every moment as it passes. Yet, while it is the narrative style that separates the book from similar novels, this choice at times seems like its very undoing.

Chase and Haven
is separated into three sections that organize  events into mornings, days, and nights. Within these sections are smaller divisions, sometimes pages, sometimes a single paragraph long. The shorter bits tend to get lost within the longer episodes. Often, individual paragraphs are more disorienting than illuminating, particularly the less coherent ones. The novel has bouts of stream of consciousness that are at odds with the established style. Often repetitive, these bouts distract from the more cohesive moments. At other times, however, the writing is strong, lean. It is then that the short sections are effective, and communicate just enough to send a shiver down the reader’s spine.

The overall effect of Chase and Haven is that the reader roots for the children even though they seem sadly doomed, holds their breath when the father’s rage is roused, and wonders just how cruel one man can be. Of course we know the answer is much crueler than what we witness within these pages, but that doesn’t stop Blouin’s writing from being poignant and raw. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009. Purchase.

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