Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reading Journal: Got No Secrets, by Danila Botha (2011)

As someone whose first book is a collection of linked short stories, I put Matthew Firth's review of Got No Secrets (in his magazine, Front & Centre, no. 25) in my file under "mistakes not to make" when he wrote: "I wondered why Botha didn't merge these stories and write a novella or a novel instead, given how similar these stories are." Particularly in the book's first half, the stories have to do with with substance abuse as escape, and Botha writes well about "the rush" of it all, drawing clear portraits of compelling characters in a propulsive style that keeps you reading. My challenge, however, was accepting that nothing will really be resolved in most of them; while starting with a brash, declarative sentence can bring your reader in, throwing another at the bottom of the last paragraph does not an ending make. And to the back cover's claim that this book "takes us into the private lives of twelve different women," I ask, "Then why do both 'The Apple Falls Far from the Tree' and 'My So-called Date' reference the same fall from a bicycle that broke a leg in three places? And why does every narrator seem to like the same punk bands?" The stories move between Toronto and South Africa as the author says she has in her bio, and while I have no beef with basing fiction on one's own life, or even with thinly veiled-autobiography if it's captivating, I didn't buy that the narrator in each story wasn't the same as the last. That said, each of these stories does stand on its own merits, and though they're often unresolved, most have have something going for them: "The Pregnant Man" is a gender-bender about coming out and about determining the roles of "mother" and "father" in a lesbian couple. "Just, Quietly, Do It" and "My So-called Date" are survivor stories - child abuse and rape, respectively - and "Smacked" and "Just, Quietly, Do It" also reveal a lot about friendship, the former about the impossibility of being friends with your dealer and the latter about jealousy and betrayal. As a group, the sum is greater than its parts, and where Botha succeeds in her debut is in her mastery of a concentrated and exciting writing style and her evocation of down-and-out settings throughout. In the end, though, I agree with Firth: I can't help but wonder how much more of an overall impact the book could have made were the stories either truly linked or truly separate.

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