Fine Lifestyles Magazine Review - Just Pretending

Short Stories with Last Impressions
Reviewed by: Devin Pacholik

"There's worse things for a kid than growing up poor." That was the line that underscored Just Pretending as an important book on my shelf. Lisa Bird-Wilson's short fiction about the Metis and First Nations' battle-scarred cultures within the urban and domestic spheres describes Canada's most vulnerable people.

From a residential school narrative that reads like a holocaust testimonial, to perpetual domestic violence and alcoholism, to a rape scene that left me stunned, Bird-Wilson hides nothing. Her language is precise and minimalistic. That is not to say her writing is simple. Her words are expertly crafted, poetic even.

Bird-Wilson speaks with an inviting voice, drawing us into each tale. The best short stories do this: they reveal seemingly trivial details carefully, each one lending itself to the next, until the final piece topples us over. For instance, in one story a character counts their money when ordering drinks at a bar, and we come to learn that they are problem drinker in the most profound manner. Bird-Wilson mounts each detail of this plot, until the whole thing lands like a drunken sucker punch, and we're left looking at the ruins of a tragic persona. This particular narrative turns into a story about chronic paternal abandonment and a bar-room brawl prompted by misplaced racial tensions. Miscounted change turns out to be anything but trivial.

There are stories about language and storytelling in Just Pretending. Often, some characters cannot understand the language of their own people, Métis. Others cannot read the ironic circumstances they live, as cycles of abuse and addictions repeat through generations. 

Some characters are sympathetic, some are monsters and some are both. There are moments of unrelenting evil, wherein even the smallest good is revealed like a flowering slave.

Within this darkness, there is humour in Just Pretending.

Lisa Bird-Wilson is a master of comedy. A sensual scene between an artist and model turns hilarious after fire in the studio. Another character steals a chicken from a store, which results in a vaudeville dash. There are dialogues in this book that are downright immature and hilarious. And as we find ourselves laughing at what may be something awful, Bird-Wilson always tuncates the moment and catches us in a bear trap of guilt and ugliness.

There are no easy laughs in Just Pretending. In fact, there are no easy emotions - everything has a price.

The very title of the book points to the unease of Metis and First Nations people in these stories. They have anger, but they cannot express it without facing consequences; they have fear, but no one to talk to about their demons. Pretending is another word for coping.

Bird-Wilson gives us hope though. Protagonists fight against their conditions. Their victories are small, almost invisible sometimes. Comfort is found in the humble gestures of family members, traditions and storytelling. At the end of any given narrative in Just Pretending, you'll find yourself going back to the beginning of a piece to discover a different twist or knot in the tangle you missed before.

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