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December 9, 2012

High Water Mark by Nicole Dixon

After chasing Lisa Moore around last week, it was sweet relief to encounter Nicole Dixon’s High Water Mark, finally something to hold on to. Though while these stories structures were conventional, their subject matter isn’t, Dixon going out of her way to introduce themes and ideas not always present in the standard Can-Lit (though if 49thShelf has taught me anything, it is that there is no such thing as “standard Can-Lit”). Her characters are bolshie, flawed, funny, horny, and determined to forge their own paths. They live in tiny Nova Scotia towns, in downtown Toronto, in Sarnia. Friendships are tangled, love lives are messy. These people are teachers, fisherman, wannabe farmers, and t-shirt folders. Nobody is sure of where they stand.

It’s a solid collection, even though the stories have been written over many years and a few have been published elsewhere– “High Water Mark” appeared in The Journey Prize Stories 19. The stories cover a broad range, but they fit together well, and their diversity makes for an interesting read. “High Water Mark” is the story of a teenage girl in tiny Refugee Cove Nova Scotia whose mother has terminal cancer and who has taken over her sister’s job folding t-shirts in a tourist trap since her sister’s baby died. And yes, it manages to be funny. “Sick Days” is one of the two Mona Berlo stories, beginning, “The grade-five students are making Mona Berlo ill…” and it’s an illuminating view into the classroom from a teacher’s perspective, and into the frustrations of having to guide young lives when one is still trying to get her own sorted out. Alcohol helps.

“Saudade” is the story of two women in a band whose dynamic is rocked by the introduction of a third member. “Mona Says Fire Fire Fire” was my favourite in the collection, Mona now relocated to Refugee Cove teaching French immersion and trying to make a place for herself among the locals while she considers a long-distance love. “Some Just Ski and Shoot” is about one woman’s revenge on her ex-boyfriend, which also represents the culmination of a long, long story. In “Happy Meat”, a couple goes back to the land and discovers that sometimes you need more than self-sufficiency. In “What Zoe Knows”, a teenage girl discovers her father is having an affair, resulting in heartbreaking conclusion and more of a glimpse than she’d like to have seen into the complexities of her parents’ lives, their vulnerabilities. And I loved “Diving For Pearls”, about a woman who goes home to work with her fisherman father and considers what to do about an unexpected pregnancy, the trouble of which is underlined in the context of a life her own mother had had to escape from. “An Unkindness of Ravens” about too-desperate love, the most dysfunctional relationship ever, and a subtly brutal ending. And finally, “You Wouldn’t Recognise Me” from the perspective of Zoe’s alcoholic mother who is struggling for forgiveness and to redeem herself after nearly killing her daughter in a car accident.

Stories like “Diving for Pearls” and “You Wouldn’t Recognize Me” are so incredibly nuanced that they left me longing for more of the same in a few of the others. “‘I know we’re expected to teach art,’ the blonde said quietly, ‘but as if I’m going to. Like it’s important.” This from “Sick Days”, from a character too dim for these stories–Mona’s strong perspective could well have been challenged by someone with more substance than that. There is a similar treatment of other women in book–the friends in “Saudade” are so surprised to meet another woman with whom conversation doesn’t “[default] to talk of shopping or TV or complaints about men.” It made me think that these women have been hanging out in all the wrong places, because brilliant women are everywhere, but they seem to be so apart in Dixon’s stories. And finally, there was a strange recurring theme of women settling into relationships and becoming obese, to the point where it was kind of conspicuous, to the point where there was no worse fate than fat, and being married was somehow synonymous.

But still, I really like what Dixon is doing here, and I hope that in her next book she realizes that she doesn’t have to try so hard to do it. “High Water Mark” is an absorbing, surprising, and affecting read whose characters live large beyond its pages.

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