Grim theme seems prescient

Stories are about death but the writer and the writing are very much alive

Joseph Wiebe
Times Colonist (Victoria)

Sunday, June 09, 2002

Dead Girls by Nancy Lee; McClelland & Stewart; 283 pages; $22.99

Nancy Lee meets me in a Main Street diner -- not the Hastings end of Main, which is woven into the fabric of her stories -- but a bright, busy restaurant with comfortable booths in the more fashionable South Main neighbourhood.

Times Colonist (Victoria)

Nancy Lee recently gave a reading at Bolen Books from her anthology, which was inspired by news reports about women missing from Vancouver's Downtown East Side.

Lee's book of short stories entitled Dead Girls has recently been released by Canada's biggest publisher, McClelland & Stewart. Critics are heaping praise on her, and rightly so. The stories in Dead Girls are breathtakingly engaging, presented in a variety of voices and styles, yet drawn together with authority and confidence that belies her short tenure as a writer.

But a new writer she is, having only been at it seriously for a handful of years. After starting a successful publicity and promotion company, she followed the advice of a fortune-teller and changed her life. It's a great story. While in Los Angeles for a business meeting, she decided on a whim to have her palm read. The palm reader looked at her hand and said, "You're doing the wrong thing in your life and until you do the right thing you'll never be happy." Lee says the terse prediction angered her more than anything: "I thought, 'Who the hell are you? You don't even know me and you don't even seem like a real psychic.'"

Nonetheless, the fortune-teller's words stayed with her. She had always wanted to write, so when she returned to Vancouver, she decided to write a short story. "I thought if I died, along with my passport, they would find this story and say, this is what Nancy Lee did with her life." It took her three weeks to complete her first story. She entered it in two contests, and won both; one landed her a trip to the B.C. Festival of the Arts (she describes it as "Club Med for writers") and the other netted her a neat $500. She eventually enrolled in the MFA creative writing program at UBC, excelled there, and now teaches fiction writing at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby while working on her first novel.

Lee seems to possess her own skills of prognostication as well. While searching for a theme on which to focus a book of stories, she noticed numerous reports in the media about women who had gone missing from Vancouver's Downtown East Side. At that time, authorities refused to acknowledge a link between the missing women, but Lee disagreed.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that most of them are addicts and prostitutes." She decided to focus her stories on this theme of missing women and what it meant for our society if there were a "predator" out there murdering them.

Thanks to the gruesome discoveries on the infamous Port Coquitlam pig farm, it has now become clear that there indeed was a connection between the disappearances. The fact that her book of stories with a similar theme has just been published is purely coincidental, but still the overlap between fiction and reality is disconcerting to say the least. There are descriptions of TV news reports in some of her stories that could almost be substituted for real reports from the ongoing investigation.

The eight stories in Dead Girls are set in reverse chronological order. In the first story, Associated Press, the killer, a dentist named Coombs, actually pleads guilty at his trial, but in the subsequent stories, less and less is known about him. The final two stories in the collection are set before his arrest, and though unnamed and unknown, his presence is still felt; in Rollie and Adele, he almost lures homeless Adele into his car, and in Sisters, the book's heartbreaking finale, Grace searches for her sister Nita who has disappeared. Interestingly, while Sisters works on its own, Coombs' presence in the preceding seven stories gives it an added weight, since the reader is left assuming that Nita is one of his victims.

But Coombs is not the sole focus of these stories; in some, he is barely mentioned. Lee's stories are independent entities, though the thematic link adds another dimension to some as it does in Sisters. Some of the middle stories of the collection stretch the thematic correlation a bit far. Not surprisingly, they are the weakest of the bunch, but the stories that start and finish the book are powerful and moving.

Lee opens Dead Girls with one of the collection's best stories. Associated Press is a stylistic marvel, written in a second person voice, and focusing on a never-named female narrator who is obsessed with "that boy," who works as an AP photographer and thus is rarely in town. Attempting to get on with her life in his absence, she accepts the advances of "this boy," whom she meets on jury duty at the Coombs trial. He introduces a sadomasochistic angle to their lovemaking which she embraces as a sort of penance for her obsession with the absent photographer. Though experimental in form, Associated Press does not come across as cold or inaccessible. The use of second-person narrative integrates the reader into the story so effectively that her journey becomes intimate and personal to the extreme.

Lee loves to experiment with "form and structure in the way that they relate to theme." For example, the second story, Sally, In Parts, is divided into descriptions of different parts of the protagonist's body. The story examines how the relationship between a father and daughter changes as the girl grows into her sexuality. The non-sexual physical intimacy that often exists between a father and daughter can become difficult and uncomfortable as the girl grows up, especially in today's world where one has to worry about what might be considered abuse. But that loss of physical intimacy can be emotionally damaging to both the father and the daughter. As Lee puts it, Sally searches "for that reconnection with her father through sexual relationships with men." This is the most disturbing story in the book, but ultimately one of the most effective and emotionally moving stories as well.

Not all of the stories in Dead Girls are disturbing and dark. A couple are actually funny and most conclude on an uplifting note. The book does reflect its title and theme, though, so most of these stories are tinged with sadness and regret. Nancy's final words from our meeting help to elaborate on this: "I think people make an assumption about women writers that just as they think women should be, women writers should be cosier and warmer and more maternal. I absolutely don't agree with that. Maybe people will think my book is cold, but I don't care."

Lee's writing is decidedly not cold; it is vibrant, startling, and -- contradicting the book's title -- electrically alive. I for one am glad that she chose to follow that fortune-teller's advice.

Joe Wiebe is a freelance writer at large in Vancouver.

 Copyright  2002 Times Colonist (Victoria)

Courtesy Times Colonist



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