Review by Kim McCullough
Just Pretending is the perfect title for Journey-prize nominee Lisa Bird-Wilson’s first book. This collection of short stories explores the multifaceted theme of identity. Bird-Wilson brilliantly exposes the Métis experience in a way that’s both critical and loving, but she also universalizes the struggles of her characters across race, gender and age. The narrators in these stories range from young women discovering their sexuality and maternal instincts, to drunken men well-past any prime they may have experienced.
Children and babies, some lost and some found, also figure prominently, functioning as either catalyst or foil to their mothers’ (and often fathers’) search for identity. Above all, everyone is a seeker, and at times, Bird-Wilson plays with the reader’s expectations when she allows the young ones to look at the world with experienced, critical, and sometimes jaded outlooks, while the adults approach conflict and change with the wide-eyed naiveté of children.
The stories are populated by everyday villains: boys on a playground; a mother who deserts her children to move up in the world; and more than one unreliable man. But there are human heroes as well, good people who make bad choices and stupid mistakes. The stories are dark, but often there is light, too, a spark of hope that for most of these people, the next day holds the promise of another chance.
Bird-Wilson has a talent for placing the reader squarely in the midst of the worlds she has created. Urban, rural, in a dank basement, or near a bucolic stream, Bird-Wilson deftly combines the action and characters with locations that highlight the urgent authenticity of these tales. In “Deedee,” a man promises himself he will meet his long-lost daughter sober, all while sitting and drinking in a strip-mall bar. In “Julia and Joe,” a young woman, nearing the end of her pregnancy, can only find relief from the heat in an air-conditioned Lincoln Continental. In “Hungry,” a young girl loses the last thread of her childhood at her school’s playground.
Bird-Wilson’s prose is clear, her descriptions fresh and evocative. The narrative voices of the characters are a reflection of their distinct personalities. There is a wry humour that flows beneath some of the stories, juxtaposed against heart-rending glimpses of not only the struggles of the Métis people, but also their strengths.
“Fine Stuff” is a story that showcases Bird-Wilson’s comedic skills. Bob, unplugging from work for the weekend, is setting up his gear at a campground when he meets Laverne, a man from a few campsites over. When the two begin drinking, an ill-conceived prank causes a domino-effect series of laugh-out-loud misfortunes, leaving Bob battered, bloody, and dressed in women’s lingerie.
At the other end of the spectrum are longer pieces and more melancholy stories, composed of beautifully written passages that linger long after the book has closed. In “Billy Bird” the title character comes home from visiting his Mooshum, who is in a long-term care home. Shelby, his woman, knows what he needs:
But these times with Billy’s Mooshum, they make him low, and Shelby is just intuitive. She knows how to wait him out like a bad cold or bitter weather while he hides his head under the hood of the Chev. He tinkers and slams and mutters and bangs at the altar of the Chev and pretty soon her lack of intervention soothes the sore, hard lump in his chest, below his throat that’s raw, and the little boy inside Billy slowly loosens his grip like he’s had him by the balls all this time and Billy didn’t notice until the moment he let go.
Lisa Bird-Wilson is a talented writer whose stories are deep and difficult, darkly amusing and always touching. Just Pretending is a collection that is not to be missed.