If there are different kinds of love, then there are different kinds of novels too — and Megan Gail Coles’s Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, shortlisted for CBC’s annual battle of books, Canada Reads 2020, is the kind that’s best read as a tough-love pre-Valentine warning.
It’s just not a feel-good, heart-warming, Eat, Pray, Love kind of book, the type some reach for when in need of romantic inspiration.
Structured around three courses served, appropriately, on Valentine’s Day at a restaurant in St. John’s, N.L., this book is divided into three acts, during which time it introduces — then makes plain the logic of connection between — several characters. The book then shows how their lives slowly and painfully unravel throughout the day.
If you bear in mind that Valentine’s Day originated in the Roman festival Lupercalia, when women were paired off with men by way of a lottery, you will be closer to the mark in terms of what Coles’s novel is about and what it attempts to achieve.
In my research, I’ve examined how public institutions and regulatory bodies approached the archival materials of different women writers in Canada: E. Pauline Johnson, Emily Carr, Sheila Watson, Jane Rule and M. NourbeSe Philip, as examples. Their interactions show how early 20th-century women’s voices were often suppressed because of sexist, racist or heteronormative tendencies, and their narratives susceptible to disappearing.
And because, to be frank, it is often uncomfortable to hear what women’s lives have to say.
Coles’s extraordinary debut novel, however, moves well past discomfort, tentative attempts at self-scrutiny and accountability, and calls for forgiveness. Forget discomfort: depending on how you identify and on your experiences, this novel could elicit either deep mortification or an invigorating anger that blazes, at moments, into real rage.
Before I explain the logic for my own emotional response, allow me also to add that this novel, a 2019 Scotiabank Giller finalist, is not for the faint of heart. Anyone who thinks their heart (or moral courage) is feeble should probably move along. Go on, find an Elizabeth Gilbert book to curl up with instead.
Or train your heart to be prepared for the emotional wreckage.
The novel’s narrative shifts from one point of view to another, revealing intersections between characters and carefully mapping the place, its social networks and divides, manifested in class, urban-rural and racialized identities that converge and then clash in the restaurant’s highly charged atmosphere.
In its evocations of Newfoundland, Coles has located herself among a vibrant tradition of writers, including Michael Crummey, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter and Donna Morrissey. Each of these writers takes on the people and sense of place in unique ways, and Coles adds a dazzling new voice.
The conflict is set against a blizzard — a nod to the St. John’s climate, but also a form of pathetic fallacy, mirroring the internal strife of several characters. Their growing bitterness and trauma mean they make decisions, usually bad ones, that give rise to the novel’s mounting tensions.
The novel opens with the warning that “this might hurt a little” (thank you, Megan), but this is polite understatement. The first few pages belie the warning and read as deliciously irreverent, as if someone pushed the Maritimes’ Anne of Green Gables into a mud puddle.
Increasingly, however, the tone shifts, ultimately transforming into a thorny, visceral, unrelenting narrative, somewhat reminiscent of Moore’s writing — one that does not shirk from disclosing the brutal realities of what it means to be a vulnerable woman in contemporary western society.
Being a “vulnerable woman” in this book is a redundancy, since it really is a question of degree; however, there are women who are more vulnerable and suffer more than others.
Take Iris, the central female character. She works at the restaurant to overcome obstacles, particularly financial ones, that prevent her from pursuing her studies as an artist — but those obstacles also include familial traumas. Mulling over scientific data about “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or “ACES,” she dryly notes that she “has a pocket full” of them and later that the existing moment is “the worst hand she has ever been dealt.”
That “pocket full” does not portend a good outcome; rather, she is “snarled” by John Fisher, the chef and her boss, a predator who, “like an angry rival fisher,” “reels” her in “hand over fist over hand over fist.” His apparent emotional offerings are a pretence, just out of reach of Iris’s grasping hands.“
Coles’ compassion and scathing judgement often vie for centre stage, never quite cancelling the other out. You may wish, for example, to judge George, whose class, racialized white privilege and protective father shield her (yes, her) from those who prey on the vulnerabilities of women like Iris, and whose selfish, self-absorbed tendencies are less than charming.
But the moment you may feel tempted to judge her too far — and she does warrant some — Coles reminds you that George too wrestles with being identified as a “pathetic childless woman” who does “the backbreaking emotional labour of two humans:” her own and her husband’s, incidentally a member of the metaphorical “local coward gun club” to which the title alludes.
These characters may be flawed, but the writing is not. The polyphony of voices is animated and remarkable. The prose is fresh, street-smart and savvy — taking clichés and even mashing these back into proper service as poetry.
The narrative is timely, in view of the recent debacles and critical conversations that have surfaced in relation to the #MeToo movement, what it means to #BelieveWomen or those that inform the field of CanLit.
As an example, Refuse: CanLit in Ruins addresses the controversies that have animated the literary scene, and tackles gritty issues like rape culture and forms of domination and exploitation. Increasingly, we are all being invited to consider the responsibilities and connections we need to assume in the face of disclosures women make about their life stories.
One character, Olive, a young Indigenous woman, is directly asked at the novel’s outset: “So who are your relations?” Even as she comes to embody the resilience of women — their agency in times of chaos — the novel suggests readers consider that question, over and over again.
The Local Coward Gun Club fearlessly counters assumptions about sex, gender, class and racialized privilege about intersectional narratives, and demands that we look full in the face at the ways and number of times women and others have been injured; the number of times they have been disavowed when they have asked for help; the number of times they have been ignored, victimized or blamed instead of being supported.
The novel will demand that you, the reader, be accountable.