Book Review: Canary by Nancy Jo Cullen

I don’t usually read short story collections, but Canary was worth it. The book, by multi-award winning Canadian author Nancy Jo Cullen offers snapshots of the lives of people in non-traditional relationships — whether friends, family or sexual partners.

Cullen has won the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging Gay Writer and has been shortlisted for several others, such as the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Stephan Lampert Award.

Cullen is attending this year’s Wordfest.

Reading about gay characters who aren’t defined by coming-out stories or by their sexuality was extremely refreshing. They struggle with family, love, work, religion, self-esteem and being gay in a predominantly heterosexual culture. Because of the depth of detail in each one, their stories never felt too fast paced or brief.

Part of that depth came from the way in which each story was told. Most of the stories in this collection generally follow a character or two in vignettes over a short period of time, conveying backstory while moving the plot forward at the same time. The stories conveyed a lot about the characters through narration of their pasts, but it never felt too intrusive into the present plot which often hinged upon this comparison of the past and the present.

What really made the stories come together were the characters. Each character felt like a real person, but they were never boring. There was some quirk to each one — from the Catholic merchandise salesman, to the hitchhiking teen ready to see humanity kill itself, to the string of strange minor characters that surround these larger-than-life protagonists and define their lives.

Each of the characters built a powerful and compelling subtext. A lot of tension came from what they thought or said versus what they actually did. The reader can relate to them because of this — everyone has held the truth back from a parent or have run into old friends who were more interested in reconnecting with you than you were with them.

There were a couple stories and characters that were weaker than the others and felt like they didn’t belong. I also felt like the narration dragged on a bit too slowly at times or lapsed too quickly into telling over showing. But overall, the characters were solid, the tension strong and the stories well paced.

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