What Can You Do
Cynthia Flood | Biblioasis, 151 pps, $19.95
Cynthia Flood scatters fleeting moments of personal insight throughout the dozen intriguing stories of What Can You Do, her fifth collection. Funnily, though, they’re sporadic, unreliable, and not what Flood’s characters (or readers) might expect. With characters muddling through or getting by with what life hands them, wisdom of the transcendent clarity variety turns out to be a rare commodity.
In understated yet nuanced pieces that are bittersweet, sobering, or chuckle-inducing, the Vancouver-based author introduces a gallery of figures for whom paths fork unexpectedly, plans go awry, and expectations require extensive revising. Still, Flood’s characters are managing. And committed to their decisions, as on-the-fly as they might be.
A married couple in the title story revisit an RV and camping venue while dogged by regret about their son (who’s “in treatment”), and conscious of the thick barrier between them. Although far from ideal, the getaway accomplishes at least one significant goal and prompts a realization: “after twenty-seven years we sometimes recognize what’s not worth discussing.” Likewise on an outdoors excursion, the couple in Rabbit, Birds, Yarrow overcome their issues by focusing on the couple across the way, who make their problems seem minor in comparison.
A kind of reversal of the couples in those stories, Summer Boy captures rivalry within a cantankerous marriage whose longevity appears to originate with the one outsmarting the other without causing much friction. A middling view of marriage that’s set over a period of years,
Wing Nut opens with a family of three residing in a “stucco prison” and closes with them purchasing a brick house in a better neighbourhood. The interim period is defined by fits and starts and 1000 little changes, with cherished dreams withering and being born again as something else altogether.
As evidenced by at least two stories, Flood finds inspiration in mapping the historical tensions within family relations, and exploring the unpredictable shapes they take years later.
In other smart pieces Flood captures decisive breaks with decorum. In Going Out, a delectable slice of mordant humour, a woman adjusts her social calendar so as not to run into her ex. But to little effect: there he is — again — with a new girlfriend.
Feeling her rage rising like vomit and thinking of “men’s infinite capacity to exploit the infinite kindness of weak women” she takes a certain pleasure in letting go, setting anger, frustration, and bad manners free, and seeing what happens.
The elderly woman in Apology reacts poorly to an intervention held by a group of four friends. They’ve decided she’s acting “less than kind.” Her burnt-bridge response suggests that self-satisfaction is far better than proper manners.
Other outliers, in Struggle, and History Lesson(s), don’t fare as well with group dynamics. Flood’s sympathies align with these outcasts, and in keeping with the overall collection, she’s deeply wary of the ways power is exercised by groups in the dominant position.
• Brett Josef Grubisic splits his weeks between Salt Spring Island and Vancouver. He’s the author of three novels, including From Up River and For One Night Only.
CLICK HERE to report a typo.
Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.