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In the Shadows, Some Light Shines Through

By Joseph Schreiber.

Breanne McIvor, Where There Are Monsters (Peepal Tree Press, 2019)

In an era when the happy ending may seem elusive, naive or, at the very least, ill-suited to the realm of serious literature, it is natural to long for a conclusion that, if not exactly happily-ever-after, is happier than expected. To that end, perhaps the most memorable feature of Breanne McIvor’s debut collection of short stories Where There Are Monsters is that, even if a shadowy quality simmers throughout, so many of her stories feature characters who are intrinsically kind and good, or capable of rising above the difficulties or legacies bequeathed them. Those who cannot are most often quite literally, well, monsters — beings possessed by a darkness deeply rooted in the folklore of Trinidad — and even then, the desire to override the evil impulses buried inside flickers with a desperate, if inadequate, humanity.

Born and raised in west Trinidad, McIvor pursued studies in English literature in the UK, first at Cambridge and then Edinburgh, before returning home. The time away not only provided a fertile atmosphere for the support and development of her skills as a writer, the distance enhanced her capacity to observe her native country with a new appreciation. Weaving traditional threads into starkly contemporary urban narratives, the Trinidad she portrays is a modern landscape where poverty and wealth share an uneasy coexistence, crime and violence are on the rise, and behind a façade of everyday reality, mythological figures are still present and active in the world. Her stories have been shortlisted for a number of awards and included in anthologies, but now, with her first compilation, newly released from Peepal Tree Press, a UK-based publisher specializing in promoting high quality Caribbean and Black British writing, she has the opportunity to properly showcase her talents.

Where There Are Monsters is divided into two parts, the titular first section and the second, more ominous “Where We Are Monsters”. As one might expect, the characters in the latter half are more difficult, whether dealing with more human emotions, like jealousy, that can get out of proportion, or truly demonic tendencies. In McIvor’s world, the lines are never hard and fast, a fact that lends an idiosyncratic gothic tone throughout, albeit in varying shades and tones. And, as indicated, although she is able to touch the negative elements of human, and less-than-human nature, she is not afraid to let her stories end on an upward note, even if that note is coloured with melancholy or remorse.

The opening story, “Ophelia”, introduces a heat-drenched world of poverty, desperation and crime, seen through the eyes of a young man intent on becoming an actor, in spite of the odds against him. He is hopelessly in love with a fellow member of his theatre group, a near-goddess, or at least that is how she appears in his eyes. But in his circumstances, his own lack of confidence may be the greatest threat he faces. With the second story, “Things We Do Not Say”, the mood and setting shifts from the violent city streets to a glossy house in an upper-class neighbourhood where a domestic drama unfolds after a woman’s secret past is unexpectedly revealed to her husband. A common set-up, perhaps, but one McIvor handles with quiet confidence, quickly demonstrating her ease with the short form.

Then, with the following story, the supernatural makes its first appearance in what might be the strongest of the explicitly monster-themed tales. “The Course” follows a couple’s unconventional attempt to tackle a most unconventional problem. She dreams of a rosy future, a baby in the basinet, but he cannot even imagine the possibility. He is cursed with a condition that hangs in the silence between them:

“It”. It is the thing neither of them knows. They tried to medicate “it” with doctors’ visits, sleeping pills and hypnosis. But it still leaves their doors hanging off hinges, scratched as if a giant wolf were trying to get out. It leaves Coraline to wake up to his torn clothes and an empty house. There is a local word for men who turn into monsters—lagahoo—but they have come to an unspoken agreement to never say the word aloud—after all, neither he nor she has ever witnessed it.

Optimistically, Coraline suggests an alternative approach to the problem—seeking a traditional healer. The course of treatment is brutal. McIvor manages to create empathetic, even admirable characters trapped in an ancient battle played out against a contemporary suburban backdrop. Horror with a heart.

The six stories that comprise the first part of the book are all quite very effective and diverse. We meet characters dealing with personal trauma, difficult family histories, and deep emotional scars. They survive, for the most part, through the support of others or through resilience and determination, as in the wonderful “The Boss” in which a young man who wants to escape a troubled legacy and build a career in advertising proves his worth with an uncommon ability to sell any fruit or vegetable at his aunt’s market stall. But he has more than a lack of job experience to overcome, and dark family secrets are buried deep. His complicated tale is told in a simple, straightforward and very funny style.

The second section opens with “The Cannibal of Santa Cruz”, a direct plunge into a traditional themed, but oddly modern horror story, setting the tone for the encounters with monsters to follow. Tales of human jealousy and revenge alternate with more supernatural variations. The protagonists here are more difficult to like, their stories are told with less empathy, and the darkness that closes in on them engenders less sympathy. And that may be the point. But the risk is that a certain sameness can set in. Of course, a reader’s fondness for the gothic will affect the response. And McIvor’s uncanny ability to work folkloric elements into contemporary settings, or to demonstrate that even the most unassuming characters can possess the capacity to respond with violence when they feel wronged is impressive.

She is, however, unwilling to let the collection close on an uncomfortable note. The final story, “One Night Stand” is a winner. When we meet Rafe, the protagonist, he comes off as arrogant and self-centred. He has, much to his chagrin, allowed a woman to spend the night and as she messes up his immaculate home, scrounging some breakfast for them, setting her (gasp) bare buttocks on his pristine white cushions, he quietly fumes. He is, of course, a business development executive, and she, it turns out works at the rape crisis centre. Oil and water, save for the wild sex, but it should have ended there. As he is driving her home, his mother calls to remind him of an upcoming family dinner, asking, with faint hope if he might be bringing someone. Understanding the subtext, his female companion suggest she could come along, just to get his mother off his back. It’s not a thought he wants to entertain:

This, he decides, is the problem with women today. They’ve gorged on Facebook and Instagram where emotions are performative. They’re bludgeoned by books and TV series and movies that celebrate men’s borderline sociopathic behaviour. Men are raised to be monsters and if they manage to rein in the worst parts of themselves, that’s all women can expect. These women will grasp at any fragment of humanity to hold it up as evidence of romance. They’re the lead actress in a world where a one-night stand blooms into love in a couple of days.

But the next weekend sees them heading out to the family dinner together anyhow and what follows is a surprise, not only to his delighted parents, but to him. It’s a beautifully orchestrated and unexpected ending to a fine debut.

McIvor possesses strong storytelling skills which are on full display throughout Where There Are Monsters. Her writing is unadorned, her characters sharply realized, and her ability to create suspense is unforced and effective. The Trinidad she presents is a complex blend of myths, magic, and all the social and economic complexities of a modern country in transition. Whether she chooses to stick to short form fiction, or to explore what the breadth of a novel can offer, Breanne McIvor is a writer worth watching.

Joseph Schreiber is a writer based in Calgary, Canada. He is the Criticism/Nonfiction Editor at 3:AM Magazine.

This is the latest Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month. The Republic of Consciousness is an organisation that rewards and supports small presses, primarily through its yearly literary prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 7th, 2019.