The Journey Prize Stories 21, a collection as diverse and multi-faceted as Canada itself, presents contenders for the most lucrative short story prize in Canada. From a young woman negotiating unwelcome male advances in a meat factory, to a Jewish advice columnist in the 1920s whose column hits a nerve, to the sudden disappearance of a woman in Japan, the collection represents a rich mosaic of Canadian writing. Past winners/nominees have included Yann Martel and Montreal’s own Heather O’Neill. And at $10,000, the Journey Prize is nothing to sniff at.
Many of the stories are dark. The bizarre imagery of “Pyro” calls to mind a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler novel. Sarah Keevil’s style is refreshing, even as she brings the reader into a shady world of drugs and destruction. Even bleaker is Shawn Syms’ depiction of a meat factory, where a young woman envisions cutting the fabric for dresses as she tears apart freshly killed livestock. Alexander MacLeod’s “Miracle Mile” details the power of ambition and rage. Marathon runners Burner and Mike share a single-minded passion for running that comes through on every page. They play chicken with trains and flirt with death, yet always emerge victorious. Burner’s unspeakable anger radiates from the pages, propelling him forward.
Stories are not necessarily centered on Canada. Lynne Kutsukake’s “Away” is set in Japan. Decades after her disappearance, a young woman is rediscovered in North Korea. Yasuko Thanh’s haunting story, “Floating Like the Dead,” presents a Chinese leper colony in BC at the turn of the twentieth century. Less strong stories include the underwhelming “Lure.” Adrian Michael Kelly describes a boy’s eerie father-son fishing trip, and forgoes quotation marks for effect. In his hands, it’s a weak device.
“Reading is an act of empathy,” the anthology introduction states. “A reader wants to believe and to feel and to share in the memories and condition of another person, however unfamiliar or unreliable the person is, and the writer’s responsibility is simply to make this possible.” The most effective stories in the anthology succeed in evoking the empathy of the reader, drawing together diverse elements of the human experience in unexpected and resonant ways. Some succeed better than others, and with Daniel Griffin it seems the best has been left for last.
Griffin’s “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale” concludes the sprawling twelve-story anthology. Daniel Griffin evocatively weaves together intertwining themes, including death, love and art. A dying painter’s talent eclipses that of his estranged father. In their final days together, father and son reach out to one another the only way they know. “I believe it’s possible to connect through the paintings, that our shared endeavor brings us together on a different level. I know you’ll never understand, but it’s true,” father explains to daughter-in-law. As a reflection on art and the relationships it draws, “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale” is a fitting end to the anthology.
“Brilliant short stories can be brilliant along any number of metrics–realism or strangeness, elegance or blunt simplicity, tight plotting or sprawling authenticity,” reads the introductory statement. In the Journey Prize anthology, brilliant short stories are difficult to qualify, but easy to recognize. With only a couple of bumps along the way, the anthology makes for a thought-provoking read–and if the high profiles of past winners are any indication, these are writers worth watching.
Sarah Fletcher obtained her master’s degree in English literature at the University of Montreal. She works as a copywriter currently based in Montreal.