Winnipeg Review on Just Pretending

Reviewed by: Brock Peters

It is a tall order indeed to tackle a theme so complex and contentious as identity. Identities, often deeply personal, are nonetheless frequently located within specific cultural groups. They can be both inherited and chosen, can be defined both historically and legally (though, in either case, not necessarily successfully), and can cause pain just as easily as they can invoke a sense of belonging, of having a locus in the world. Though she is writing from a uniquely Métis perspective, Lisa Bird-Wilson’s diverse fictional explorations of the concept of identity are widely applicable and relatable, not to mention nestled deep within the emotional richness of her unique storytelling voice.

Just Pretending is Bird-Wilson’s debut short story collection, though she has previously published a book of nonfiction, entitled An Institute of Our Own: A History of the Gabriel Dumont Institute. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines all over Canada, has been twice nominated for the Journey Prize, and included in Best Canadian Essays (2011). That is to say, one would expect this to be the debut collection of an established voice. And it certainly is.

We are welcomed into the collection by a haunting, mystical one-page piece called “Astum,” meaning “come here” in Cree. The second story, “Blood Memory,” would then seem to very much establish the project of the collection with respect to its treatment and exploration of Métis identity: in anticipation of the birth of her child, a pregnant woman imagines the life of her own mother, who she never met, and about whom she knows almost nothing, except for the single word: Métis. With prose at once poetic and gritty, the mother-to-be asks of her own mother, “What made her think she was immune to it all, to the fecundity of the land and animals that every day plugged her nose with pungent odours, filled her ears with bawling bleating madness?”

And I have little doubt that if this had been the extent of the collection, if Bird-Wilson had been content to weave stories in her well-developed double-edged voice that explicitly explored her characters’ Métis identity in particular, it would have been a fine work. But as I progressed through the book it became evident to me that Lisa Bird-Wilson is a writer with a taste for diversity. She is willing and eager to creatively explore many different facets of her characters’ identities, while maintaining consistency in the collection through her unique voice and uniform settings (insofar as most of her characters find themselves in impoverished situations, or at least coming from a tenuous family background).

Some of Bird-Wilson’s strongest stories are those that take an almost experimental tack. “Mister X,” for example, is comprised of a series of short episodes centring around Beate’s boyfriend, who is lying comatose and unidentified in a hospital. Interesting pop-culture tidbits about the moniker “Mister X” are interspersed with Beate’s recollection of their relationship, her struggles with Ivy (her Internal Voice), and what would seem to be Mister X’s own perspective as he gropes his way through a nightmarish darkness. In “How to Tell if You Are Poor,” the collection’s final story, an unexpected magical realist twist results in the appearance of Wesakachak, a benevolent mythological trickster. “Wes” appears to a group of friends, each of whom is dealing with interior demons, and who decide that they are collectively owed three wishes by their new acquaintance.

It’s hard to draw external comparisons to Bird-Wilson’s voice. Her writing is lyrical but contemporary, and never shies away from graphic detail. She is entirely willing to face head-on some of the most intense emotional moments in her characters’ lives. What makes her stories stand out in this regard is that she uses metaphor very effectively in processing these emotions. In “Billy Bird,” a young man watches his grandfather waste away in a hospital bed under the omnipresent image of a fierce bear. Bird-Wilson uses this image to weave both metaphor and story (the bear features in a horrible story from the grandfather’s past, in which as a boy he witnessed his own grandfather’s brutal death) into the central plot, resulting in a very multifaceted and satisfying prose experience.

If there’s a trap that Just Pretending falls into, it is found in the characterization, particularly among the collection’s younger characters. A number of stories feature characters who seem exaggeratedly poetic or intellectual, particularly in their dialogue and speech. For example, “The Nirvana Principle” features a fourteen-year-old who reads Freud to confound her therapist, and decides that post-structuralism “really suits [her] cynical nature.” Which alone isn’t a huge issue, but then we have “Happy Numbers,” wherein the narrator boasts of having completed the twelfth grade reading list while still in the fifth, and “Julia and Joe,” where 18-year-old Julia describes her pregnant self as “a sway-backed robin full of fat wet worms,” among other imaginative metaphors. Given, however, that “Happy Numbers” remains one of the most creative and interesting stories in the collection, dealing with an unlikely romance executed via code in an old copy of Heart of Darkness, nagging issues of age-based plausibility aren’t enough to detract significantly from the quality of most stories here.

Indeed, there were several instances in this collection where I was forced to correct my assumptions, as when seemingly stereotyped antagonists show flashes of humanity, when tough jailbirds become trusted (albeit homeless) friends, and when itinerant mothers return, defeated and in need of help, after previously abandoning their families. Lisa Bird-Wilson has created an impressive cast of characters, each of whom embodies a distinctive struggle and a distinct perspective. And as someone for whom the search for a cultural identity never seemed pivotal, who has never been faced with the cyclical and crushing nature of poverty and addiction, and who has never been left wanting by negligent parents, this collection proved an eye-opening testament to the breadth of experience and identity that the world embodies, and that Bird-Wilson weaves so well.

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