“I learned early on that things don’t come out of nowhere,” says the narrator in “Baby Teeth,” one of eleven stories in Teri Vlassopoulos’s Bats or Swallows. “There is always a buildup.”
With such an exceptional debut collection, Vlassopoulos may herself appear to have come out of nowhere. Her own buildup, however, can be found in over a decade of zine writing, a training ground that has served her well.
There’s a mesmeric quality to Vlassopoulos’s storytelling. Her writing is warm, uncomplicated, and beguilingly intimate. She produces crisp sentences that are economical in words and generous in personality. From “What Counts”:
When I met Nick, I thought he was nice. A little dumb, but nice, and he didn’t go to my high school, which was the most important thing. He came over while my parents were out and I played him ‘Country Feedback’ on my guitar. As I fumbled between E minor and G, he leaned over and kissed me.
Her characters are genuine, situated in moments or periods of tension. While this is pretty standard stuff for short stories, what distinguishes Vlassopoulos’s work is her ability to insinuate continuation; the worlds she constructs allow us to easily imagine these characters before and after their existences on the page. Her stories epitomize what Chris Power wrote in a Guardian piece about the plight of the short story in a world that favours novels: “The short story…acknowledges the vastness and diversity of life by the very act of focusing on one small moment or aspect of it. The story is small precisely because life is so big.” Bats or Swallows is full of such small moments; moments that suggest lives so big.
Relationships undergoing alteration is the book’s recurring theme. People once close drift apart from each other, an occurrence recognized and examined by at least one of the parties involved. In “A Secret Handshake,” featuring a sibling dynamic reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird’s Scout and Jem, a twelve-year old girl laments her older brother’s new assertiveness and subsequent distance. In “What You Want and What You Need,” a married couple attempts to fill a gap by switching to an open relationship, only to see an even wider fissure develop between them. In “What Counts,” the book’s best story, high school student Esther navigates a shifting relationship landscape populated by a new boyfriend, a cousin, and a longtime best friend. It’s in these instances of change that Vlassopoulos displays her talent for writing tremendously human characters who experience joy and uncertainty, passion and pain.
At a time when short story collections are receiving, deservedly, more and more attention, add Bats or Swallows to the growing list of those that merit a close look. Teri Vlassopoulos has a voice that rings true, imaginings filled with significance, and an ability to express these in a deceptively easy manner. You might even say it comes out of nowhere.
Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Something Important and Delicate” won the 2010 3Macs carte blanche Prize.
Bats or Swallows is a finalist for the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, sponsored by the Writers Union of Canada. The award is named after Danuta Gleed, a writer whose first collection of short stories, One of the Chosen, was posthumously published after her death in December, 1996.