Toronto’s Heather Birrell is an author—but she’s also a high school English teacher. This last bit is important, as it helps explain why some of the strongest moments in Mad Hope, her second collection of short stories, involve both teenagers and grammar.
When the narrator of “Dominoes” walks into her Grade 7 classroom and sees her teacher, who is from Trinidad, erasing the ethnic slur someone has scrawled across the chalkboard, it’s striking that the first thing he does is correct the typo. “I’m not even a Paki,” he adds to the girl. “You will encounter this often in the world, Maddie. Carelessness and hate in combination. Strange that what bothers me most is the inaccuracy of it all.”
Maddie will grow up and become a fledging writer herself, struggling through night-time writing workshops in order to find her voice. In fact, the suite of linked stories in the middle of Birrell’s collection, of which “Dominoes” is the first piece, will try to tell the same story from three different perspectives. This is itself a very writerly exercise.
Meanwhile, Mad Hope’s opening story, “BriannaSusannaAlana,” is about three sisters, each on the outside of teenagedom looking in. For the younger two, that means harmlessly acting out grown-up scenarios in their rooms or around the neighbourhood. For the eldest, however, it means an aggressively flirtatious conversation with some older boys that pressed my inner panic button immediately. One of the boys opens with a crass line that is neither grammatical nor fit to print, and all the girl and her friend do in response is giggle, excitedly whispering to each other, “What should I say?” That’s when I realized, my stomach sinking, that Birrell got the scene exactly right.
On the whole, Birrell’s sentences and narrative voice are seductive, but not entirely convincing. The conversations between old and young, whether in the medical waiting room of “Geraldine and Jerome” or the high-school biology class of “Frogs,” lay out the conceit that everyone has something to teach us, no matter their age, too plainly. And the suite of stories involving Maddie mentioned above always feels more like an extended creative-writing assignment than anything else. Every piece has moments of clarity and grace, especially when Birrell locks into the uniquely pinballing mentality of young children, but few of them dazzle from start to finish.
The one that comes closest is “No One Else Really Wants to Listen,” which takes place entirely within a message board for pregnant women. It starts as one user, New Country Girl, asks the online community whether a little bit of spotting is cause for concern. From here a whole swath of users chime in with advice both relevant and not (someone named Wings tells a story about stingrays), and perspectives both supportive and less so (an extreme Christian user, after learning that NCC used to work at an abortion clinic, warns that there is “a table reserved in a restaurant called Hades for you and your devil spawn”). Birrell doesn’t take full advantage of the online environment, but this story’s embrace of technology is alive and immediate, and—even better—shows us an interaction that’s all too common, yet rarely depicted in literary fiction.
Why more writers don’t do this sort of thing is a mystery to me. Regardless, Birrell is smartly positioning herself near the front of the pack.
Coach House, 232 pp, $18.95, paperback
(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, June 24, 2012)