I recently crossed Saskatoon driving behind a battered Honda Civic with the bumper sticker: ‘Change is inevitable – growth is optional.’ This might well be the motto underlying Britt Holmström’s first collection of short fiction. In Leaving Berlin this experienced Regina-based novelist tapers her prose to focus on female characters thrust, often unexpectedly, into moments of revelation. These women, of all ages and origins, struggle with the assumptions and constraints that structure their lives. Complicated relationships unravel, personalities collide, and as time and memory turn back on themselves, yearnings, hopes, and reality itself, beg to be reframed. Rendered in candid, conversational prose, sharp physical descriptions position the reader as confidante to Holmström’s characters, and they certainly do confide
In “ The Company She Kept” a group of divorced medical-office mates startle themselves out of a comfortable friendship by first obsessing over, then energetically attacking the transparent lies of a newly hired temp. She is young, beautiful, and clearly unstable, but they find themselves driven to best her, delighting in her weaknesses as they swirl into self-improvement. Their circle is scattered, ultimately, by shame at their actions, their sharp contrast with the good intentions each holds themselves accountable to. But “what is the moral of this story?” Irene asks—out of “a stubborn need for this particular tale to have a moral attached to it. Like the list of ingredients on a can of soup.” She and Gertrude have met for coffee, to catch up, now that each has found new employment. Gertrude is moving on, drumming her nails on the table between them, and says—“Morals and soup are two different things.”
“How do you know what love is?” a seventeen-year old asks her mother in the final story, “Charmed.” That mother would love to tell her daughter that love is something a child cannot know—yet, in pages of reflection we see her circling the great, unrequited love of her youth, a first pure experience that the realities of an uninspired marriage cannot, and perhaps should not compete with. She answers her daughter finally, “Whatever love is, don’t let me drink too much at your wedding.”
These stories are poignant, personal, and carry both Holmström’s irreverent humour and her evident regard for the complicated human heart. While plots travel through time, across Europe, England, big-city Canada and the Canadian prairies, drama is found most often in the everyday details of human interaction. The stories move with a momentum that is both timeless and placeless, their arc emerging from reflection on the past as often as from events in the present. We are all offered opportunities in our lives to change, with options to grow, and like the women of Leaving Berlin we are easily transfixed by that complexity of freedom. In a literary landscape where stories, especially those following female characters, so often idealize relationship and providence, Holmström’s stories provide a refreshing, lucid, anti-romance.
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