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November 1, 2012

The Elizabeth Stories by Isabel Huggan

Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories is the book I’ve been talking about for a week now, desperate to shove it into someone’s hands so they can know, or else to encounter someone who already knows just how wonderful it is (and this has happened a lot). In terms of Canadian short stories masters, we don’t have to pick sides, but I liked this book better than any I’ve ever read by Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant. Less a novel in stories or a short story collection than a book— but then I can also reflect back on the individual stories. I think that “Sorrows of the Flesh” might be the best short story that I have ever, ever read.

As a bildungsroman, The Elizabeth Stories visits familiar terrain–young girl growing up in small town Ontario, constrained by convention, a misfit, confused by how the conservative society she lives in has no regard for her burgeoning sexuality. The stories were familiar to me as scenes from my own life– anger at a school-yard victim and the horrible people they drive us to be; the epic nature of childhood humiliations; the pain of not fitting in; of being misunderstood; of that impossible love for a high school teacher.

And yet, these stories surprised me at every turn, Elizabeth surprised me at every turn, for her ordinariness, for the plainness of her situation, a plainness so rarely encountered in fiction. In The Elizabeth Stories, there is no justice, no ending is tidy. Elizabeth’s parents are unbearably awful people in very subtle ways, though we’re provided glimpses as to how their characters have been shaped. Elizabeth herself does the most terrible ordinary things, we witness moments that are unbearable to watch, that leave us thinking, “Oh, no she didn’t. But of course she did!” How shocking twists are inevitable just a page later. And how many shocking twists there are in this book that so much reeks of the ordinary, the domestic, the mundane. There is a brutal, horrifying stuff going on here, and I think of this at a time when women writers are crawling out onto crazy limbs in order to be gritty, shocking, to push the limits of what we’re allowed to write about. When Isabel Huggan was doing it all the while, such brutality right here embedded into this neat little package of a book. Maybe some of us don’t have to try as hard as we think we do, or maybe the point is that not everyone is Isabel Huggan, but still.

And oh, the writing. How the ordinary is illuminated (like Lisa Moore and sock-sorting in February— turns out there is more story in a laundry basket than we ever imagined). From “Queen Esther”: “As soon as I was tall enough, my household chore on Mondays was to bring the wash in after school. It was a job I never objected to, even when in the winter my fingers ached as I pulled at the pegs on the frozen shirts and sheets. The clothes, stiff and unwieldy, would be stacked like boards in the basement where overnight they’d go limp and damp, perfect for ironing on Tuesday. The grey-blue shadows on the snow, the sky like clear rosy tea steeping darker, the creak of the lined–the only part missing in winter was the smell. In all other seasons, I buried my face in the laundry and breathed it in, the delicate aroma of virtue.”

6 thoughts on “The Elizabeth Stories by Isabel Huggan”

  1. It’s been ages since I read this, but your thoughts on it have made me want to pluck it off the shelf with some urgency. Brutality in a neat little package: I like how you’ve put that!

  2. carin says:

    Funny how certain words about certain books just jump out and say: this one you have to read. I didn’t even read your whole piece before I knew this was such a book.

  3. Nathalie Foy says:

    Mmmm. “The delicate aroma of virtue.” Wonderful.

  4. Kerry says:

    Looking forward to reading her other books next. So so glad I’ve encountered these.

  5. Laura Rock says:

    Belonging, her memoir w/ stories at the end, is wonderful.

    1. Kerry says:

      Yes, plan to read it soon along with her other story collection You Never Know! Very excited to have these books before me.

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