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May 16, 2012

People Who Disappear by Alex Leslie

Twice last week I tried to read People Who Disappear, the short story collection by Alex Leslie, but couldn’t get past page 20. Not because there was anything wrong with the book, but instead because it seemed a bit heavy, and I suspected it would require an emotional investment I might not be ready to give. The third time I was ready though, it finally took, and the first story “The Coast is a Road” was so absolutely perfect. I read the ending over and over in disbelief that the story had led where it had. The story of of two young women, one a free-spirited journalist travelling in search of stories and the other her lover who trails along after her: “A tin can rattling, small tin rabbit jumping, tied to your bumper.” Together they travel through northern British Columbia, skirting disaster at every turn, tracing the limits of their commitment to one another, and the story is fabulously full of plot, jarring images– the horses! the horses! Seriously, have you read it yet?

This is a story collection populated with people who do disappear, with fractured lines, with miscommunication, gaps and questions. Closest family ties tend to be with strange uncles, or dubious fathers. Lovers are not wholly known to one another, test each other’s limits. The roads these characters travel are off often the map, literally and metaphorically: “There were so many, a person could spend their life driving around and around these invisible roads.”

Something I’ve noticed recently in reading reviews of short story collections is that very rarely do reviewers reach any consensus about what stories are the strongest or weakest of the bunch. And I’m beginning to think that as subjective is everything, the stories in a collection are in particular. The best stories here are the ones I liked the best, like “The Coast is a Road”, and also “Face”, its trap of nostalgia. My husband is not Canadian so he did not get it at all when I read to him the line that evoked my entire childhood:

“He went down in the pits again, taking his best friend, who played hockey by himself against his garage door every night, sending hollow metallic bursts down the block, so everyone knew at the same moment when his sweat got its first chill and he went inside; then we knew it was night.”

And of course, check out this writing. Clearly, this story’s appeal is its language as much as the personal connections I’ve made with its plot details.

In “Like-Mind”, a woman agrees to help an old friend whom she knows is unstable to drive around Vancouver picking up freecycle items for his new apartment, and she knows that becoming involved with him again is ill-advised, but he has no one else. It is inevitable that their history will be repeated. “People Who Are Michael” is a series of descriptions of videos uploaded to the Youtube channel of a Bieber-ish pop sensation who’s cruising for a crash. “Wire Boy” and “The Bodies of Others” are stories of childhood outcasts, and a young narrator is also at the heart of “Long Way From Nowhere”, the story of a girl who rides the invisible roads with a man who tells authorities he’s her father, but clearly they both have something to hide. She finally escapes him to run away to a community of environmental activists who live in houses in the trees, and this story is like the collection’s first story– as substantial as a novel and as surprising in its turns. I also enjoyed “Two-Handed Things” about two women whose relationship’s cracks are exposed but unremarked upon when one fractures her arm and becomes wholly dependent on the other.

Leslie’s stories are firmly rooted in their place, coastal and northern British Columbia with its ferry boats, extreme weather, and Vancouverosity. To those for whom these places and things are familiar, I imagine this book might feel a bit like home. And to people like me for whom it isn’t, the sense of it all is evoked just the same. It’s a really wonderful collection.

One thought on “People Who Disappear by Alex Leslie”

  1. alex. says:

    wow, thank you for this response to my book. this made my day. alex.

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