Its fabulous title originally drew me to the short story collection Not the Apocalypse I Was Hoping For by Leslie Greentree, but the fact that it’s a locally published and authored work, right here in Calgary at the University of Calgary Press, was reason enough for me to read this one; I love a book published in my city! I also used to work at the University of Calgary, and I know Leslie from seeing her at local book events, so lots of connections to this one. It’s always a challenge to offer unbiased reviews when I’m reading a book by a person I know, and a publisher I want to support, but I’ll do my best here. Luckily, when an academic press like the U of C releases a work of fiction, the writing has to be pretty darn good on its own, so I was delighted to realize how much I enjoyed this book.
There are a total of 14 short stories in this collection, and it being only 177 pages in total, these are truly short stories, most of them around the same length. One of them titled “The room of pickled foods” is about a young boy trying to get a laugh out of some grieving family, but misreading the situation and taking a practical joke too far. The title story is written from a young man’s perspective as he decides to stay back after a forced evacuation during a forest fire that has spread to an urban area, posting on social media and breaking into people’s homes to feed their pets (and do other, not so nice things). “Gargoyle love” creates a wonderfully dark atmosphere in its descriptions of a young female teacher who has had an affair with her high school student, realizing its him who now holds the power in their relationship. In other stories, a new mother struggles with the demands of her new baby while coddling her aging dog to an extent many would find strange, including her own husband. Then a hairdresser recalls a special senior client of hers whom she developed a deep friendship with, regretting she wasn’t able to set her perm just one last time before her death. The first and the last story are cleverly linked, which I delighted in once I realized how they were connected.
Some of these stories verge on the outrageous, which I found most entertaining, while others depicted characters who embodied an unpopular opinion. In some cases, the characters voice these opinions out loud, and they get chastised for it (the struggling mother makes a joke that she can understand why some people shake their baby, and it falls flat at a dinner party). However in each piece readers will find something relatable. Each story contains these inner thoughts that have all crossed our mind at some point, but because we know they are questionable, would rarely voice them.
Taking characters to these extreme limits is something that short stories are the perfect venue for, because we don’t necessarily want to spend hundreds of pages with them. In some cases they are acting in a despicable or self-destructive way, but these glimpses into their lives are certainly entertaining, and this book really excels at that. The ‘hero’ of the titular story is a great example of this; his intention to protect people’s homes during the evacuation is clearly self-serving in that he’s obsessed with gaining social media fame, and as we follow him in this misguided adventure it becomes more and more clear how stupid his plan is, but it’s a fun and short look into this ‘what if’ scenario that a full-length novel wouldn’t be able to sustain.
Although some stories are lighter in tone, most have a darker underbelly, one that the reader can either focus on, or avert their eyes from, because these are mostly undertones rather than their focus. “Children in the walls” is particularly striking, as it suggests an exploitation of a child that never really surfaces, but there are enough hints at a sinister intention that is hard to ignore as well. Greentree’s writing is descriptive enough to invite us in, but transparent enough to get out of the way of the plot and character development, never distracting us from what we are meant to see, as subtle as it is.
I’m always proud to review another local book that I can honestly say is worth the read, and this collection is definitely worth your time. It’s likely hard to secure outside of Canada, but for those closer to home, it’s one to consider adding to your bookshelf.