No part of Katherine Koller’s Winning Chance is cynical. The 15 stories in this collection—the first from the Edmonton-based playwright and novelist—read more like the good-news piece at the end of a broadcast than the doom-and-gloom preceding it. You know the story, the one that radiates such human goodness it couldn’t possibly be true, except it has to be—it happened right down the street.
You will not meet anti-heroes here. You will, however, meet do-gooders: women who take in rough-speaking young mothers and their babies (“Belovèd by the Moon,” “The Return,” “Love, Janis”), a child who forges a friendship with an elderly woman and her handicapped son (“The Teeny Tiny Woman”), a husband and wife who, in the afterlife, become guardians of highway drivers (“M & M”). For better or for worse, Winning Chance’s down-and-out are often personified opportunities for change.
All told, Koller’s protagonists face no shortage of their own pain. Wounds of the past—unhappy marriages, deceased spouses and parents, miscarriages—make people hungry for connection and resolution in a way that feels true to life. This pain is resolved in transcendental moments of sentiment. In one story’s ending, a couple repairs their fractured relationship by reflecting on a bird bath made from their broken dishes. In another, two women plant flowers together, healing the wounds of motherhood through a literal act of rebirth. We may consider these flourishes as testaments to the redeeming power of human connection—an antidote to the more cynical norms of contemporary literature. Or, given the privilege already afforded to these characters—often homeowning, white, straight—we may consider whether the grace they receive is truly groundbreaking. The collection’s standout stories are those that complicate our ideas about who is deserving of a happy ending. “The Care & Feeding of Small Birds,” for example, believably captures the disarming aftermath of grief, laying bare the hurt we cause others when consumed by hurt of our own.
These stories punch above their realist, slice-of-life weights, thanks to Koller’s specificity and description. She pays particular attention to evoking complex worlds of the home (“the salmon-pink room where sleek Sandra had steamed him in her hot tub, hand-fed him fruits he could not name”), and these domestic portraits linger long after the first read. It would be too easy to dismiss these stories as mere antidotes to cynicism. Instead, we might see them as a challenge to acknowledge that, yes, pain is a given in all lives, but hope and redemption are too. The ingredients for near-transcendent goodness, Winning Chance urges us to believe, all exist in life as we know it.
—Kate Black is a writer in Vancouver. She grew up in St. Albert.