Calgary novelist and short fiction writer Lori Hahnel’s second collection of short stories, Vermin, arrives at an opportune time, when short fiction is being lauded on literary award lists. Hahnel’s newest stories dramatize a mature handling of narrative craft. The book’s epigraph from Yeats signals its preoccupations—that only “sex and the dead” are worth serious consideration. These stories track the struggles and deaths of intimates, exploring the nuanced pathology of relationships with a feminist sensibility, including in a couple of satisfying revenge stories where bad guys get their just deserts.
Although each of the 20 stories is told from a first-person, cis female point of view, this belies the ambitious range of Hahnel’s storytellers. Protagonists include the putative love interests of Tom Thomson, Frédéric Chopin, Stephen Foster and Bix Beiderbecke. Suburban moms become renegade entrepreneurs, selling (allegedly) used underwear on eBay. Young girls try to make sense of schoolyard and adult power struggles. When the preschool girl in “Ask Your Mom” learns a swear word from neighbourhood boys, her mother’s shock troubles the mystery: “I still didn’t know what it meant, but I could tell it was something bad.” A 1960s setting is deftly sketched in details, such as a reference to “the Chinaman’s” store, and in the girl’s distress when made to wear a scratchy crinoline under her dress to Sunday mass. Emboldened by this transgressive experience, the girl ignores her mother’s dinnertime summons and runs “free” with the boys. Other stories are set in contemporary Calgary, notably one in which two friends, psychoactively altered, end up drinking with the aging band at the down-at-the heels Bowness Hotel, the refuge of “bikers and career drinkers.”
Hahnel has mastered the art of in medias res openings. Glancing up from her morning paper, the narrator of “A Good Long Life” thinks she sees a row of blackbirds on the clothesline. These turn out to be black, frost-covered socks hung by the previous owner, an elderly widow, unable to let go of the past. While most of Hahnel’s endings strike a definitive ta-dah! sense of closure, the ones that worked best for me offer more haunting, minor-chord endings. The wife in “A Love Story” sees her husband talking intensely with a young woman: “I would have thought maybe he was happy,” she thinks, “but he had that same strange look on his face I’d never seen before.”
Though there is a certain structural sameness to these stories, they do not fall in the soporific company of the “earnest Canadian short stories” that cause one of Hahnel’s protagonists to nod off in mid-read. These are well-made stories that offer convincingly conflicted characters. A hospitable, entertaining read.
—Jannie Edwards is a poet, teacher and editor in Edmonton.