In 2000 Calgary author Rea Tarvydas packed her bags and moved to Hong Kong, where she spent two years raising her children and writing. How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square, her debut collection of short stories, is the result of this extended stay. The stories, written over the course of the last decade, reveal a Hong Kong where rain-slicked streets reflect the neon signs of nightclubs in red-light districts—home to late-night corporate dealings and bathroom hookups. But those dark, seedy moments of excess coexist with more mundane stories of shopping for a dress or joining a jogging group, extending the experience of the city out of neo-noir territory. Ultimately these stories are about people, not atmosphere.
Themes of alienation, belonging and loneliness pervade the lives of Tarvydas’s characters—a mostly expat community of western businessmen, communications specialists and those looking to leave something behind. In “Rephrasing Kate,” an ex-geophysicist living with her husband—whose frequent business trips leave her isolated in Hong Kong—meets Decker, a charming ladies man. A fling ensues, and in the post-coital pillow talk, Decker gets to the heart of why they do what they do. “All that time I spent with bar girls, what I craved most was a regular conversation. A couple of months ago, I figure I’m ready to go on a regular date, with a regular woman, and the weirdest fucking thing happened. I discover I can’t talk anymore. I mean, I can’t connect.”
The emotional dislocation of the characters is a through line to these stories. When recurring character Load Toad observes scavengers picking through rubble in “21:23,” he’s transfixed by an elderly scrounger, though he can’t tell why. “She squats in the dust, entangles wire with fingers gnarled like ginger root. This is the memory Load Toad will seek words for, when he watched an old woman pluck wire from a basket like a bird. He will repeat this story over and over and search for meaning.”
Stylistically, the stories vary from first, second or third person. In the didactic titular story, “you” are the protagonist, going through the motions of a typical weekend routine: “Stay in Saturday night and atone for Friday’s excesses; assorted amphetamines and extracurricular activities on The Filthy Acre. Calm yourself. Swear off amphetamines, think about calling home. Don’t call your wife. Ex-wife.”
These are stories about people trying to escape through sex, drugs and pop-punk music. Moments of raw honesty—pockets of clarity—emerge and recede within their lives. But despite the emptiness, as a whole, How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square is an emotionally smart, enjoyable read.
—Andrew Guilbert is assistant editor at Calgary’s Avenue.