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Pickle Me This

March 19, 2019

Notes Towards Recovery, by Louise Ells

There is a sense of the foreboding in the first story of Louise Ells’ debut collection Notes Towards Recovery, a story called “Erratics.” “I wonder what’s left,” the narrator wonders, considering the place in Ontario’s Muskoka region where her family had spent their summers during her childhood. “Later, I’d read about the Lindbergh case in one of the Reader’s Digests that lined the bookshelves of every privy on the Lake,” she explains, and she fears for her younger brother from the time he is a baby, as he grows up five years younger than she is, and the story keeps returning to the big rock the children jump from into the lake. Is someone going to get hurt? But what happens turns out to be something the narrator never even thinks to anticipate, and this is a point underlying the stories in this collection, how different fate is from the stories we’re told about who we’re supposed to be, and how far what really happened is from the memories we carry.

Before I read these stories, I was first intrigued by Louise Ells’ biography—working as a chef, a roofer, co-pilot on a submarine, and she would eventually write her doctoral dissertation on the works of Alice Munro. And Munro’s influence shows in these stories, which are very much Ontario stories, most of them set outside of Ottawa in Renfrew County. They are concerned with memory, with history, and are wary of nostalgia. Even in those golden long-ago summers, husbands were cheating, mental illness was ignored, pregnant girls were sent to an aunts, and same-sex relationships were considered deviant. And the protagonists of Ells’ stories are left to grapple with those history, which they struggle to let go of, even with the trauma. Trying to make their way forward into the future: the story “Mirrored” begins: “I thought I’d manage without a map.” Spoiler: It’s not so simple.

I liked these stories a lot, although the collection itself might have benefited from some pruning—the stories near the beginning of the book were stronger than those towards the end, although it might also have been that there are twenty-one stories in the collection with recurring themes and ideas, and they’d lost their freshness as I got to the final third and started to blend together. Or possibly this is a story collection that’s not best read straight through, one story after another. But that is how I read it, not least because most of these stories themselves were strong and compelling. Notes Towards Recovery is a remarkable debut.

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