Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 5

November 9, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

This Cake Is for the Party. Sarah Selecky; $22.95 paper 978-0-88762-525-1, 230 pp., Thomas Allen Publishers.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: None

From the publisher: “These ten smart, tautly written stories mark the debut of an exciting new voice in Canadian short fiction.”

From reviews: “Selecky catches each of her characters in the midst of acute crises and keenly extracts the stories behind the stories we tell ourselves.” – Lisa Foad, The Globe and Mail

“Although her stories can be chilling – particularly in the case of ‘One Thousand Wax Buddhas,’ about a candle maker who succumbs to mental illness, and ‘How Healthy Are You?,’ about a woman’s memory of her participation in the testing of a mysterious drug – Selecky is never what you’d call dark. This is a writer who is good at being open-ended without leaving us dangling. – Toronto Star

“The story that closes the collection, ‘One Thousand Wax Buddhas,’ … is almost a textbook example of what a short story should be. The prose is simple and unaffected, but Selecky, as if folding melted chocolate into cake batter, works in piles of psychological detail.” – Montreal Gazette

“This Cake Is for the Party may not offer a variety of styles or tones, and the subjects covered are anything but fun, but it possesses a satisfying blend of humour, angst, desperation, and warmth.” – Quill & Quire

My reaction: Death and dissolution hang like spectres over the ten stories in Sarah Selecky’s debut collection. A woman attends a garage sale held by the family of her elderly neighbour who has died of cancer. A mentally ill artist immolates herself in her studio. A 14-year-old girl makes out with a stranger in the back of a Greyhound bus while her father’s dead body lies waiting for her at home. Marriages hit the skids, couples break up and reform, and practically everybody is being unfaithful to one another.

Despite the heaviness of the material, Selecky’s stories are not ponderous; on the contrary, the prose is light and quick, tinged with moments of wry humour. “[L]et’s not talk about marketing before we eat,” says an author to a table of dinner guests at a charity benefit. “It can cause indigestion.” A bride-to-be rejects the notion of carrying lavender flowers down the aisle because “dried flowers are terrible feng shui.” A woman who believes she sees the Virgin Mary in an apple says of another neighbourhood woman that “while she was inarguably a kind-hearted person, [she] was delusional.”

Selecky’s deft touch helps to ameliorate the darker material in her book, and to enliven the somewhat trivial concerns of certain characters. Stories often turn on such fashionable afflictions as postmodern anxiety, a fetish for nutritional supplements, and a dependency on anti-depressants; there’s nothing wrong with these as subjects for short fiction, but when forced to abut the weightier, more existential concerns of sickness and death, they do come across seeming a tad pallid.

Moreover, while Selecky displays a facility for clever turns of phrase, the writing is occasionally careless. In “Watching Atlas,” for example, a screen door closes “with a hiss”; three pages later the same door “hushes itself shut.” In the same story, Selekcy overuses italics to indicate the narrator’s inflection, and in the opening story, “Throwing Cotton,” she appears innocent of the distinction between the verbs “to bring” and “to take.” These slips, along with the occasional misplaced modifier (“I drop my keys in the dish by the front door that says Florida’s Ripe for Picking“), are not fatal, but neither do they signal a writer who has achieved complete mastery over her materials.

In general, the stories get stronger as the collection progresses. Stand-outs include the Joyce Carol Oatseian “Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart?” and the book’s bravura final story, “A Thousand Wax Buddhas.” Selecky is clearly a writer of talent and promise. But taken as a whole, this cake is less than completely satisfying.


One Response to “Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 5”
  1. Congratulations, Mr. Beattie, on once again single-handedly stirring my interest in an entire shortlist.