In the third story from the end of Gil Adamson‘s short story collection Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, Hazel, our valiant explorer and protagonist, admits that she has a terrible memory: “I can’t remember anything in its right order, and I rarely know if it’s a memory or just something I heard somewhere.” It’s a common failing, I would think, our pasts clouded by time, by stories, by dreams and imaginings all swirling around in the depths of our consciousness. Just as on the playful and evocative cover, it’s like being under water, peering into the murky waters, searching for those brief moments when a errant ray of light temporarily clears the shadows. And it seems to me that each story in this collection, which ranges from Hazel being a few years old to her being in her late teens, is just that: those illuminated memories that we carry with us, for better or for worse.
Through Hazel’s sharp observation (it is genius for Hazel to be wearing a snorkel mask on the cover) that we are initiated into the particular miseries of her dysfunctional family. She watches as her parents grow apart, and her father spends more and more time rewiring their home in a oblique attempt to rekindle a spark, for as he explains to his daughter when he tells her about lightning, “Like any current two sides must connect or nothing happens.” For this is a family at disconnects: her brother temporarily stops speaking, her grandparents bicker, her uncle womanizes, Hazel turns to casual sex.
But while a story about disconnects could be barren, Adamson’s stories are anything but. Nothing particularly extraordinary happens in any of the stories, but Adamson presents vivid images, each rendered with precise and evocative word choice and a remarkable instinct for rhythm that makes every line a pleasure to read. I’ll quote at length her description of a child’s experience of the Canadian winter:
“… a whole world of children waddling around in torturous, unbending snowsuits. A world of sleds and snow and slush and ice balls down the back of my neck and soggy knees and the maddening zzt-zzt of nylon snow pants; the throttle of wool scarves, yanked tight by my mother and impossible to claw open; the stink of cloakrooms, the multicoloured Popsicle look of cold feet and the shrieking pangs while they thaw…”
Her metaphors are spot on, with such gems such as a newborn baby with “toes like corn niblets,” or wedding-goers with coats over their formal gear: “We hurry along the road in the snow, looking like an assortment of bonbons in frilly wrappings.”
The characters in this collection of short stories are also collectors of stories: they savour the peccadilloes and eccentricities of their neighbours. Hazel watches them with binoculars, her mother remembers all the details, her father strikes up random conversations, encouraging strangers to disclose their secrets. For as Hazel concludes, “It’s a relief to find out how warped other people are.”
And that is one of the principal pleasures of this collection, to see one’s own familial dysfunction reflected in the waters of Hazel’s memories. But Adamson takes it even further, allowing Hazel to eventually appreciate her family’s own particular brand of dysfunction. In the final story, Hazel is mired in a hellish family dinner, and she experiences a flickering moment of tenderness for her family: “I think: wouldn’t it be nice if we all died suddenly, without hurting, without knowing anything had happened, and went on as ghosts, having dinner and arguing and never growing old?” And when the plum cake ignites into a startling pillar of flame, Hazel experiences a moment which will forever be illuminated in the murky depths of memory, a moment of chaos and togetherness, of both love and madness, and she sees her family more clearly than ever before, “with light pouring out, bright as a flash.”
Fans of Adamson’s hit historical novel The Outlander may initially be taken aback expecting a more plot-driven narrative, but the interconnected short stories allow a more novelistic feel, and hopefully after a couple of Adamson’s offbeat, perceptive and often humorous tales, readers will find themselves once again captivated, poised like Andrew in “Heaven Is a Place That Starts with H,” “holding onto the dashboard with both hands, pressing his face to the glass.”