Review by Tara Gilboy
In Standing at an Angle to My Age, his debut collection of short fiction, P.W. Bridgman reveals himself as a strong new voice in Canadian literature. The stories in this collection cover vast ground; Bridgman takes the reader back and forth in time and across the Atlantic. From Ireland to Canada to Great Britain, from the present day to the Second World War, Bridgman renders each setting skillfully, both through physical detail and the nuances of each place and time’s characters and speech.
Impressively, Bridgman places the reader firmly in each unique setting without resorting to long passages of description; rather, he is able to make each setting come alive for the reader with brief strokes and well-chosen detail. Whether it is a poor grocer “shucking the leaves and tassels of new Chilliwack sweet corn,” a “saucepan scrap[ing] across the gas ring,” the “wheezing sound the legs of her snowpants made as they rubbed against each other” in a freezing Ontario winter, putting coins into a wall heater in a chilly London flat, or young boys taking someone’s “cacks” (underwear) in Northern Ireland, the detail Bridgman layers into his stories rings with authenticity.
Perhaps most impressive is Bridgman’s ear for dialogue. He captures the cadences, phrasings, dialects, and speech patterns of characters across an amazing variety of landscapes, education levels, ages, and social classes. Bridgman seems equally comfortable writing dialogue for twelve-year-old boys as middle-aged academics and disabled Yorkshire women. Despite his diverse cast of characters, however, Bridgman’s own voice is strong throughout. A consistent, recognizable prose style runs throughout the book, even as he adopts the voice of each story. Although the stories differ greatly from one another, looking at each story alone, I would be able to recognize each as one of Bridgman’s.
Prose style, though, is only part of what makes Bridgman’s work distinctive: the stories also offer the reader a lens to examine characters and moments more closely, gradually zooming in until we see the inner workings of their psychologies, often in unique ways. “Turning the Trap” does this in an especially interesting way. It begins with a man’s suicide and works backward in time, giving the reader glimpses into key moments of the deceased’s life, not so that we understand the specific reasons for the suicide but, much more subtly, so that we see the great sadness that has underlain this man’s life.
The book is arranged with bite-sized stories interspersed between longer ones. This breaks up the book nicely and makes for easy reading, although the longer stories are the ones that stuck with me; they are where Bridgman truly shines. Some of the shorter stories lack a complete arc and feel more like sketches or fragments than stories (as I believe Bridgman is aware, since he subtitles one such story “A Narrative Fragment”). The larger problem, though, is that many of these shorter stories depend on narrative summary, an elevated diction level (words like “proffered” and “wont”), and literary tricks like twist endings and surprise reveals rather than storytelling foundations like strong plot, scene, and character development.
One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “Our Secret,” which slowly reveals the inner dynamics of a family amidst the backdrop of secrets and tragedy, shifting reader sympathies subtly until the character we disliked at the beginning has our greatest sympathy by the end. The elevated diction of some of the other pieces is absent here, placing the emphasis on story and character. In this story Bridgman is at his best, using clear prose that is most effective in its simplicity. Some of the language is just lovely, for example: “Her eyes ran while she chopped the onions. The eggs bumped nervously against each other in the boiling water.” In what is supposed to be a happy scene for the characters, Bridgman skillfully depicts these seemingly mundane cooking tasks in a way that conveys a sense of foreboding as disaster looms.
This story has one of the most moving endings in the collection, and its final paragraph contains some of the book’s most beautiful language:
And Astrid also watched as snow, falling more heavily now, began to fill in and gradually obliterate hopeful block capitals arrayed for a second time across a wintry lawn, mocking every prayer of supplication that had ever been offered – by herself or anyone from the sorry little patch of ground that she called her world – up and into the cold dark vault of nothingness that reached above her, skyward to infinity.
I would recommend this book, not only because of its ability to transport the reader to different places and times, but because of the intimate look it gives into the lives of often overlooked, ordinary people. In this collection, P.W. Bridgman reaffirms the power of the short story to move us emotionally: the poignant, authentic moments and characters in these stories will stick with readers for a long time.