It is no coincidence that This One’s Going to Last Forever, the title of Montreal writer Nairne Holtz’s new fiction collection, reads like a mellow, depressant-fuelled 1970s pop song. In her protagonists’ often unhappy love affairs, Holtz frequently evokes hope shot through with a sense of heart.
Forever is divided into three parts. The novella, Are You Committed? is the centrepiece, bookended by short stories. The opening stories describe characters with secrets. In a testament to her skill, Holtz tackles everything from a closeted man sleeping with an Elvis impersonator who runs a drive-by wedding chapel (a more distinct piece that is a great starter to the collection), to a self-identified lesbian who considers sleeping with the cute guy from work. The reader roots for these characters, while never knowing for certain what they will do next.
“No Parking” is a nice counterpoint for those who have seen — but loathed — the film Kissing Jessica Stein. The protagonist, a top who has dated very few women, starts an affair with a closeted woman who has a boyfriend. The protagonist here, often mistaken for a man, has many of the same butch attributes as Sam, the heroine in Holtz’s first book, the novel The Skin Beneath. By tapping into a first- or third-person everywoman voice, Holtz nails a bull’s-eye of characterization, accompanied by crisp prose.
Holtz also aptly describes budding sexual and sociopolitical awareness in the novella, Are You Committed? Sara, a first-year student enrolled at McGill University in 1989, is having a sexual and political awakening. At first Committed overtells instead of showing, but compensates for this drawback halfway through when the Montreal Massacre creates a black hole in the characters’ lives. The tragedy, settling in her consciousness, becomes a catalyst urging Sara to further explore the idea of sleeping with women, BDSM, political feminist reading and getting involved in the McGill Women’s Union.
Sara becomes an endearing character, as when she ponders why she finds certain women attractive: “But did Clara find Gabby and Kirsten’s date sexy because they looked like guys? Does that mean I’m really straight? Liking girls was scary and, yet, not liking them would be disappointing. What did she want? She had no idea. God, she wished she were 30 and had her act together.”
Part three of Forever depicts loving relationships that sometimes go awry. These harrowing and strange pieces are rawer. Holtz’s prose is maturing from earlier pieces where characters saw 30 as just plain old.
Relationships are also more complicated. Phantoms follow Anna who recently had her leg amputated after a car accident. The phantom pain she feels overlaps into her now-loveless relationship. Again avoiding a conventional touchy-feely conclusion, Holtz surprises the reader. After one page we not only like Anna, we like who she’s becoming.
The queer women populating Forever grapple with sex, love and relationships. Contrary to what the book’s title suggests, Holtz depicts relationships that are probably not going to last forever. They will, in fact, be very lucky if they survive their characters’ secret motel-room rendezvous, heroin addictions or skidding out on a patch of black ice. Holtz does leave the reader believing, though, that there is some chance these women may start anew. Holtz imbues their often miserable lives with a sense of their souls trying to move onto something greater.