Montreal based and Journey Prize nominated writer, Anna Leventhal, released her first collection of short stories, Sweet Affliction, earlier this spring and has crafted a subtle yet powerful debut. Most of the stories are set in her adopted city, yet as the book’s cover reveals, it is a Montreal flipped on its tête – one in which Moving Day is mandatory and sanctioned by the province, one in which Hasidic Jews socially interact with their non-Orthodox neighbours, one in which the Hippodrome is the set of a twisted reality show where illegal immigrants vie for citizenship, and one in which her characters feel justified in doing the wrong things for the right reasons.
Yet regardless of these creative tweaks to setting, Leventhal’s stories are all about her characters. She is skilled in character development, seemingly revealing so much about her protagonists, yet in reality giving her readers jussst enough to make them empathize and see and feel what her characters are feeling. A few stories are loosely connected by characters, giving us snippets of their lives from undergrad days living in a crowded house in Mile End to everyone grown up and dealing with issues like adultery, multiple sclerosis, academia, and donating sperm to a friend.
Leventhal is definitely not afraid to write about difficult subject matter, as cancer and terminal illness seem to be a motif that runs through several of these stories (“Wellspring”, “A Goddamn Fucking Cake”, and the title story). What’s more, she’s not afraid to put her characters in difficult situations as well – taking a pregnancy test at a wedding (“Gravity”), mourning the loss of a pet (“Horseman, Pass By), being exposed of date rape at a Passover Seder (“Maitland”), working at a rub and tug on Ste-Catherine Street (“A Favour”), and the list goes on.
This is a collection to be read slowly, and one that will stick with its readers after they’re done. With fifteen stories there’s lots to like here, with only a few that feel as if they don’t quite hold up in an otherwise strong collection. As a minor complaint, I find the endings of a few of the stories a bit lacking of a strong image or sense of cohesion, yet other stories like “Helga Volga” or “Horseman, Pass By” do a fine job of hitting the point finale on the head. And in the end, I had the same feeling that the narrator of “Wellspring” couldn’t seem to get rid of when I was reading Sweet Affliction – one of zzzzmmmmmmmmmm – joy.
Check out this book now.