Satisfied with dissatisfaction

UVic alumna Andrea Routley’s debut collection of short stories is entertaining and deeply affecting. Her voice is contemplative, always questioning assumptions or presenting alternative ways of thinking, and it’s fairly heavy on inventive imagery as well, without straying too far into a tendency to assign symbolic meaning to every event, human-related or otherwise.

Her voice and style carry on throughout what are supposed to be different perspectives and narrating characters; this would potentially be bothersome if the voice in question wasn’t so enjoyable to read—enjoyable, but not exactly easy. This can be chalked up to the nature of the subject matter, which ranges from suicide to failing relationships to broken families and divorce.

At some point, we have all endured that deadening feeling of ennui, the knowledge that we are missing something. That something may be a person, or an object or event. Then again, as for our protagonist in the book’s titular story, it could be something wholly indefinable—a yearning for “more” that goes beyond even the highest level of physical and emotional freedom that one could reasonably expect in life. The absence of this thing is often enough to cripple our confidence and effectiveness, sending us into the kind of spiral that Routley’s characters contend with.

Many variations of dissatisfaction and the human condition are skilfully explored in Routley’s stories, and though there are varying levels of confidence in illumination of concepts, the stories are consistently insightful. In most of them, the point is not quite to explain or understand the emotional mechanics of loss, but to appreciate them, as one might admire the beauty of a fire consuming a house. Even if one understands the source of one’s sadness, this usually does little to  counteract its effects. That being the case, acceptance may be preferable.

The stories in Routley’s collection don’t lack for psychologically satisfying conclusions though. While some may not provide answers to every question for the characters or the reader, every tale ends in such a way as to make a clear statement, revealing either the overall shape of events in the story itself, or the likely course of events in the story’s untold future.

Overall, Jane and the Whales is definitely a worthwhile read, and not a casual one either. For, although the individual stories are short and not particularly dense, each one seems to necessitate a bit of reflection time—perhaps not the most peaceful reflection, if you happen to be troubled by a wintry depression similar to most of these characters. And yet, like the best of melancholic literature, the book has great potential for a therapeutic effect. After all, escaping into the troubles of our fellow human beings, even fictional ones, is often a sort of mental holiday from our own troubles.

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