Lynn Coady is no stranger to the Giller Prize. Her novel The Antagonist was shortlisted in 2011 and I read it back then as part of my Shadow Giller Prize duties. While I don't remember a great deal about that story, I still remember the main character's voice, which was urgent, angry, often snarky and very frank. Those same traits are found in the voices of many of the characters in her latest book, Hellgoing — a collection of short stories — which has been shortlisted for this year's prize.
Right off the bat, I have to admit my prejudice against short story collections — that is, I don't like them very much. Or at least I think I don't like them very much, because it usually turns out that I quite enjoy them when I take the time to read them. I suspect my so-called prejudice is a mental hurdle more than anything else.
So the prospect of reading Coady's collection didn't exactly fill me with delight. However, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. And I especially liked that each of the nine stories in Hellgoing was just the right size to last me a 20-minute tube journey, so they were the perfect way to bookend my working day: a story in the morning on the way to work and one in the evening on the way home.
Food for thought
While I can't say that any of the stories here are outstanding, two stood out for me — or at least have remained in my memory a week or so after having finished the book.
Take This and Eat It is about a nun, working in a hospital, who is asked to intervene on behalf of a teenage patient starving herself to death on religious grounds.
The voice of Sister Anita, who narrates the story in the first person, is not what one would expect: she's a bit fed up, annoyed with other people and not the most gracious. Of course, we're hearing her interior monologue, which is in stark contrast to her outward persona, which is demure and kindly.
But she has a particularly wicked sense of humour. This exchange with Catherine, the starving 14-year-old, is a good example:
“I’m devout,” insists Catherine. “I’m just being devout.”
“But you’re hurting yourself, dear, just look at the size of you.”
“Well, I don’t care, I want to be the empty vessel. I want to be filled with God. I want him to fill me.” She gets this look on her face. She rubs her concave stomach.
“Stop it,” I say. “Smarten up. Where did you hear this nonsense?”
“It’s in the Bible,” says Catherine.
“Well, don’t read the Bible,” I tell her. “That’s what Protestants do and look at them.”
Sister Anita is none too happy about having to help this poor misguided girl — she'd rather "sit with old ladies and pat their hands" — and she's particularly rankled that the social worker Hilary has asked her to help because she sees this as Hilary's job. But when Catherine asks to take communion, she hits upon an idea — they could "sneak some peanut butter or something" on the communion wafer and thereby get the girl to actually eat something...
The second story I really liked was Mr Hope, about one girl's memory of a substitute teacher she first had in Grade One, who then taught her at various stages over the next few years right up until Grade Nine. This isn't the sort of story you might expect. It's not someone recalling a teacher with fondness. Throughout this story, Shelly constantly wrestles with the same dilemma she had as a five-year-old: "Is this a nice man? Or is it a mean man?"
He was the only man who ever taught us [...]. He’d grunt a pronouncement, glare blue fury until he could be sure it had sunk in, then move on to the next tenet of the lesson.
By Grade Three I had arrived at the cautious determination to love him as I did all the other grown-ups in my life. Mr. Hope, I’d decided, was also mine. If only for the sake of consistency.
As time moves on, Shelly changes, but so, too, does her view of Mr Hope, which moves from tentative friendship to all-out war. The story culminates with Mr Hope telling Shelly a few home truths, which reveal more about him — and her — than she might have possibly imagined...
Entertaining but subtle
While I could probably say nice things about the remaining stories in Hellgoing I wasn't particularly wowed by it as a potentially prize-winning collection. Indeed, I don't think it's a coincidence that the two stories I've chosen to highlight here are the two which had memorable "twists" to them. Many of the others simply faded away and lacked impact.
I'd be very surprised to see this book win the Giller Prize, but that's not to say this isn't a collection worth dipping into. Readers seeking stories about unfufilled, often angry, usually female characters wrestling with personal and familial relationships will find plenty to like here........................................................................................................................... the publisher's website.