Alison Manley Reviews Short Maritime Fiction that Never Fails to Surprise
Rafael Has Pretty Eyes
Goose Lane Editions
The press info, as well as the blurb on the back of this collection of short stories remarks that while the stories are set in the Maritimes, they transcend borders, which I find interesting. While reading the stories in Rafael Has Pretty Eyes, I felt so very at home, because the stories were so rooted in the Maritimes.
As a Maritimer myself, who has stubbornly refused to leave the region, I love fictional portrayals of the Maritimes, and I love writing which is steeped in our culture. Elaine McCluskey’s work here may transcend borders, but there is a very unapologetic Maritimes positioning in these stories and I think it should be celebrated. I was delighted to find myself on streets I know in Halifax, in neighbourhoods I’ve spent time in or lived in, and seeing landmarks I know well. Rafael Has Pretty Eyes brings two things I love together into one neat, well-executed package: Atlantic Canada, and strange, evocative literary fiction.
McCluskey plays a lot with expectations in this collection: several stories set us up for a slice of life, which starts out as one thing, before a dramatic, throwaway line at the end which changes the whole tone of the story. The first subversion happens in the opening story, “It’s Never What You Think It Will Be,” which in hindsight was a clue for both this story and the rest of the book. I was so completely drawn into Michael’s thoughts and his telling of the roast of his stepfather that I forgot that clue.
Even after I knew to expect that twist, I was still surprised by the drama of the shift. McCluskey’s execution of surprise is masterful. The story which shares a title with the collection, “Rafael Has Pretty Eyes,” is particularly jarring in its departure, but incredibly realistic.
Rafael Has Pretty Eyes captures the ennui of our particular real-world moment, while blessedly not bringing up the pandemic. The characters in each story are struggling in some way, facing rejection and difficulty in their lives.
In “Dirty Little Lair,” I felt very strongly for David, who was at a job interview for a position which had been filled before he showed up. Similarly indicative of the current job landscape was the subsequent story, “Would You Recommend Us?” featuring an exit form filled out by a laid-off journalist after decades of loyal work in the newsroom. Reading it felt a little too on the nose in some places, to the point where I would believe it’s real and not fiction.
Rafael Has Pretty Eyes is an eclectic short story collection, firmly Maritimer in its language and setting. It flips expectations on their head. If someone were to ask me for a book that would help them understand the urban Maritimer, I would pick this one.