Author Tags: Fiction

Born and raised in Ontario, Jenn Farrell is a freelance writer and editor in Vancouver. A two-time winner of the Vancouver Courier fiction contest and a recipient of the 2002 Maclean-Hunter Endowment Prize for non-fiction, she has authored two collections of short stories, Sugar Bush & Other Stories: Stories of Sex, Discovery, & Emancipation on the Canadian Shield (Anvil, 2006) and The Devil You Know (Anvil, 2010).

[BCBW 2010] "Fiction"

The Devil You Know by Jenn Farrell (Anvil $16)

from BCBW Winter 2010

Some stories, such as Jenn Farrell’s “day of the dead,” grab you by the lapel and don’t let go. Doesn’t matter where you are. You can be stuck in traffic, on a hot afternoon, trying to get onto the Lions Gate Bridge.

“Sam found the car keys on the hook by the front door and drove her mother’s rusty Accord straight to the hospital. She gave her name at the reception desk and waited for a social worker named Elise to take her down to the morgue.”

By the time you’ve reached Lost Lagoon, Sam (Samantha), the good-looking but single Vancouver hairdresser—whose flight to Toronto didn’t get her to the deathbed in time—has to identify her mother’s emaciated, cancerous carcass.

“For the first time, Sam could see the resemblance between her mother and her grandmother.”

Your seat belt is fastened. You’re not using your cell. There’s no by-law against reading, is there? Yet.Rubbernecking and reading are both acts of curiosity. You can’t not slow down and peek. Jenn Farrell’s opening story in The Devil You Know is like a roadside accident scene.

The fastidiously polite Funeral Services Director, Michael, who addresses Sam as Miss Black, explains some bloodless protocols. To assert herself, Sam asks how do clients know for certain that a $600 urn for ashes isn’t replaced by a cardboard box, then re-sold again and again?

Our Miss Black is not a nice girl. She has inherited some of her mother’s nastiness. And anger. When Michael produces the pamphlet with suitable phrases for tombstones, she inwardly composes her own alternate epitaphs. Thin at last. Or, even better, I told you I was sick.

We start to care about Samantha when she confesses she is oddly enamoured of this business-like cemetery guy, Michael. It’s a bit humiliating for her, but it’s better than feeling nothing.

“She’d been aching for physical contact with someone—no matter how stupid the circumstance—even this small-handed man in a suit.

“She had brushed against the hand of the gas-station attendant when he passed her her credit card slip that morning, and the urge to wrap herself around him had almost made her cry with longing.”

Geez, West Vancouver is so bland. You are glad you don’t live there anymore. You’re opposed to light summer reading. If anything, we need an antidote to Frisbees, ice cream cones and fireworks...

Samantha retreats to the stifling house in southern Ontario that she now owns. Her mother has left her a vindictive, self-centred note, a final rebuke to her desertion. Past the bitter end, her mother is suffocating. Farrell writes, “Her loneliness felt like a garment around her.”

Sam can’t bring herself to sleep in her mother’s bed. She drinks cherry whiskey that tastes like cough syrup and wakes on the sofa. She eats a bag of ketchup chips for breakfast. She calls Michael to make an unnecessary second appointment.

“She was two for two now, if anyone was keeping score on missing the death of a parent. Sam hadn’t made it to her father’s passing either, when he was crushed between two train cars at the steel mill a month before her birth.”

Wearing a sundress that she worries is too young for her, Sam returns to the cemetery where she tells Michael she’ll take a Robert Browning quote. It’s the least offensive item on the remembrance menu. The undertaker surprises her by reciting four lines of the stanza from which the line has been taken.

Michael leads her on a stroll of the grounds. It’s not exactly romantic, but it’s something. She selects a spot for her mother’s remains in the shade of a maple.

When he asks if she has given any consideration to making her own arrangements, Sam is mystified. “I thought you were about to ask me out,” she blurts.

Sam grinds the gears and pulls out of the parking lot.

You have just reached the curb of your mother’s apartment building. Your mother is 83. The story is almost done.
Back at her mother’s place, Sam takes scissors and starts chopping off her hair. She can’t stop cutting. Soon there is only stubble. Sam runs her hands over her patchy head. “The woman in the mirror looked naked, skull-like,” Farrell writes.

“Sam saw her grandmother’s cheekbones, her mother’s baleful eyes. She saw her own emptiness, her heart so open, so capable of love, and not a soul in the world to give it to….

“And, somewhere, a hole in the earth waited for her.”

You ring the buzzer. The rest of these stories are going to be good, too. Some things, you can just tell.

Most hype is just that. But book reviewer Jennifer Croll was bang on when she announced in the Georgia Straight that Jenn Farrell is a bad-ass version of Alice Munro. It sounds like hokum, but Munro’s short stories are similarly ambivalent about conventional morality.


[BCBW 2010]