#750 Thirteen tales of youthful angst
by Traci Skuce
Edmonton: NeWest, 2020
$19.95 / 9781988732800
Reviewed by Heather Graham
Of the thirteen stories in Hunger Moon, twelve first appeared separately in various publications, in somewhat different form. What that different form might have been is never revealed, only that they were “earlier versions,” a description bound to conjure up a certain curiosity in some readers. Were the changes small ones, some polishing of an already satisfying narrative, or were they major revisions, resulting in an altogether different story than its first incarnation? But even if we had the answer to that question, the fact remains that these are the versions the author wants us to have, the ones that best express her artistic vision right now.
Something else of note about this debut collection from Traci Skuce of Cumberland is that it’s quite an accomplishment to have your work already so widely published at such an early point in your career. Twelve stories, all accepted by the kind of small literary presses that are the starting point for many writers. Get a few stories published, then hopefully move on to a collection, as in this case.
All of the stories in Hunger Moon are about young people, many of them very young — adolescents or teenagers. The oldest in this youthful cohort of protagonists are in their twenties, so it’s no surprise that the stories explore the kinds of concerns or anxieties you would expect among this demographic. Adding to the sense of a tight focus is the fact that ten of the stories are centred around female protagonists: girls on the cusp of puberty, older girls or young women trying to navigate their longings for love, desperate young mothers facing the realities of life post-love. The two stories told from a male perspective, plus one with a shared male-female point of view, are not, however, the sum total of masculine presence; philandering husbands, unreliable fathers, self-absorbed boyfriends or partners — all have their roles to play in Skuce’s tales of youthful angst.
To call these stories ‘bleak’ would probably be an overstatement, although a few of them, notably “To the Ravine,” are heart-wrenching, but there is definitely something very sad about most of them. Young women doing their best to cope with motherhood, abandoned by the men they expected would make them happy, or at least stick around long enough to help out. Teenagers unable to find any traction in their lives, drifting through the world in search of something they can’t even name. These characters share a hunger that’s almost primal. To be sure, there are stories that don’t fall into this category, but they are the exception. As a storyteller, what seems to interest Skuce most at the moment is plumbing the depths of human longing among the young and the vulnerable.
Interestingly, “Destination Scavengers,” the story that best captures this experience of psychic rootlessness, is not at all sad. There’s no happy ending, to be sure, but over the course of a road trip something important is revealed to our protagonist, Leon (yes, a male protagonist, not one of Skuce’s girls or young women), and his sense of who he is in the world is not so much transformed as confirmed.
Leon and his pal Riley, along with Riley’s latest girlfriend, an artist of sorts, leave Vancouver bound for . . . somewhere else. This is not the first time Leon and Riley have headed out in search of diversion, and the destination isn’t really the point. “Only the moving mattered, the landscapes slipping past their windows like film strips.” But having a third party along is new, and Leon isn’t happy about it.
Riley is the dominant member of this threesome: his car, his agenda, his rules. Leon is in that place in his life sometimes euphemistically referred to as being “at loose ends,” meaning he has no plans, and no desire to make plans. This road trip is just one more opportunity to avoid thinking about the future.
As they drive, the girlfriend proposes a game of Truth or Dare, and Riley offers a truth — not about himself, but about Leon.
“My buddy Leon here,” Riley said. “Was born with an excessive number of fingers.”
Leon, we learn, began life with two extra pinkies. Riley “had always revelled in Leon’s oddity, saying it was total freak show material,” a version of events that Leon not only went along with but encouraged, because it gave him an entrée into Riley’s “large circle of friends,” an abundance of friends being something Leon does not have.
When the girlfriend is told that these extra appendages were surgically removed soon after Leon’s birth, she is shocked.
Riley, in his turn, is stumped by her inability to see the “rightness” of this correction to Leon’s abnormal state.
“Are you kidding?” Riley said. “Do you know anyone with twelve fingers?”
Looking at his “oddity” through this young woman’s eyes, Leon recognizes something he has never been able to articulate: those spare fingers were part of what made him the person he was meant to be, and losing them deprived him of his true identity. Here is someone who sees right through what society mandates as normal — as so eloquently expressed by Riley, a guy who likes to think of himself as special when in truth he’s just another advocate for conformity, for the dominant culture — and shows Leon a truth he has kept hidden all his life, even from himself. He can’t get those fingers back, but the knowledge of what it meant, the understanding, is enough.
By the end of the story, the dynamics between the three travellers have changed. Riley’s agenda and rules have lost their power; he may still have control of the car, but he’s in it by himself. Leon and the girlfriend are standing together at the side of the highway, a satellite blinking above them in the night sky:
Jana reached for him and he dropped the flashlight. The beam sputtered to life. She knit her fingers into his, extending pinkies from his scars. They stayed that way. Their hands beginning to glow. First green, and then gold.
“Destination Scavengers” is the kind of story that stays with you long after you’ve moved on. It’s a fine example of the best storytelling, because everything the reader needs is disclosed in the unfolding of events, in the interaction of characters with those events and with each other, not in anything explicitly stated by the author. Skuce has an obvious ease with language, and she writes with confidence. Not all of the stories in Hunger Moon will appeal to all readers, and none of them have the same luminous quality as “Destination Scavengers,” but they are all well crafted. Skuce knows what she’s doing; reading these stories, it’s easy to see why they found favour with the editors of literary journals in Canada and the U.S. before turning up in this collection.
As for what Traci Skuce may bring to readers in years to come, perhaps some of the young people from this collection will make return appearances in other guises, older but not necessarily wiser, still hungry for the unconditional embrace that has eluded them all their lives.
Heather Graham worked as an editor for nearly thirty years, and during that same time made more than one foray into the seductive but fraught business of bookselling. Now officially retired, she indulges her bookish inclinations by taking on the occasional editing project, as well as trying her hand at the storytelling process itself and doing some of her own writing. She lives on Malcolm Island in Queen Charlotte Strait.
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