I am a kid, maybe 11 years old; the world is on the precipice of the new millennium, and I am on the treacherous threshold of puberty.
I walk home from days of gruelling, thoughtless banality at school. Daily, I am met at the corner of our property by a cat named Spike, a plump white and tawny-splotched shorthair. I smile and continue to the front porch with this feline companion on my heels. I stop and sit with him for a few moments every day when the weather permits.
Spike belongs to the big lady next door but haunts our yard whenever he’s outside, a welcome friend.
From those days I don’t remember the names of most of my classmates or teachers, but I still remember Spike, our small, quiet ritual, and how much that meant to me, an antidote to the anxieties of growing up in an increasingly scary world.
I can’t help but think of the everyday magic between humans and the natural world as I read Jane and the Whales, the debut short-story collection of Victoria author Andrea Routley.
“With the everdayness of a diminishing wilderness, along with all the other environmental degradations, it seems impossible not to have this on the mind, consciously or not,” Routley says.
“I like to incorporate animals, not simply for use as symbols or projections of human emotion — although some of the characters are definitely projecting — but for our shared experience of trying to find a place in the world.”
Routley brings together a collection of bizarre, wonderful and often dark short stories. Like a child standing at the edge of a dark forest, staring into the gloom, her stories confront the animal power within people and, at the same time, the cages we find ourselves living in.
Some of the stories work better than others, but a generous handful stand out above the rest, proving Routley is an exciting, emerging voice on the Canadian literary scene.
For example, in “Dog,” a young woman undergoing an arduous breakup from her live-in girlfriend finds herself stuck in a tent on a crowded campground. She neighbours an obnoxious family and a hot butch woman, with the miserable breakup dog in tow, furry baggage from the relationship.
“Other People’s Houses” follows a tyrannical patriarch, his demented quest to roast the perfect pork shank on the perfect barbecue pit, and his vendetta against European starlings.
The titular tale “Jane and the Whales” recounts the existential (and karaoke-related) crisis of Jane, who, even in astral projection, always ends up at the same tawdry gay bar. The end of this story, the finale of the collection, is pure magic.
Routley explains how the opportunity to publish Jane and the Whales was serendipitous: “Caitlin Press, who published the anthology I edited, Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women (2010), were specifically looking for a debut short fiction collection and also wanted to publish a LGBTQ writer,” she says, adding that “powerhouse publisher” Vici Johnstone factored into the support of this new work.
Routley has certainly put in her dues on the scene, having edited three issues of the queer literary e-magazine Plenitude, with a fourth on the way in print form.
The new print version of Plenitude has also inspired a Valentine’s Day reading, co-sponsored by Pride UBC. The event will feature a handful of contributors reading from their works, along with a big book raffle in support of the Memorial March and other literary fun.
“I think I will read something from ‘Dog,’” Routley says. “I’m not usually big on Valentine’s Day, but I think a story about lusting after the handsome butch in the campground would be appropriate.”
Despite being a cat person, I have to concede her point.