Every short story collection should have one perfect story that the reader returns to over and over. Even if some of the other stories are ho-hum, that one perfect story remains in the mind.
Through sheer luck, the first story I read in Katherine Fawcett’s second collection of short stories, The Swan Suit, is that perfect story: “East O,” told from the point of view of an egg in an unnamed woman’s ovary. Clever, engaging, and original, “East O” made me marvel at what can be accomplished with a witty first-person narrator.
Several stories in The Swan Skin conjure Angela Carter—the retelling of fairy tales, the stark exploration of sexual politics. In “Happy” a woman tires of sex after thirty-two years of marriage—“Babs yearned for a life of celibacy and contemplation” (212)—and progressively seals up all her orifices with caulking, Gorilla Glue, and duct tape. “The Virgin and the Troll” is a modern bawdy twist on Rumpelstiltskin, complete with a king who needs money for a music festival and a foul-mouthed fifteen-year-old virgin. When she hears that her father told the king she could spin straw into gold, she says, “My dad told you that I could spin straw? Into fucking gold? I can’t even sew a button onto a burlap sack” (100). The father seems more concerned with his daughter’s honour than her happiness, but the daughter has different plans.
The title story examines the power dynamics of appearance and identity. A fisherman who steals a shape-shifter’s swan suit is a mama’s boy who “always felt uncomfortable in his own skin around [women]” (14); his mother is a former beauty queen who doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror, but knows deep down, she’s “still the same, but there’s something new about the shape of space [she takes] up in the world” (20). The story explores the choices embodied in outer appearance, proposing that “skin, fur, and feathers are simply costumes” (28).
Fawcett turns to humour and social commentary in “Ham,” which features one of the three little pigs as an entrepreneur who markets a line of “wolf-broth-based organic meals” (113) through his company Chinny-Chin-Chin Organics, a company that says “no to victim mentality” (114). Referencing contemporary trends from Twitter hashtags to GoFundMe pages, Fawcett explores Ham’s “rags to riches to scandal to born-again family man” (123) arc, ending with ten questions for discussion, including a mention of Ham’s memoir, Happy at Last: Finding Joy in a Straw House.
Surprisingly, Ham, the ruthless entrepreneur, is one of the more sympathetic characters. Several of Fawcett’s characters are sketched in harsh lines. In “The Devil and Miss Nora,” the Devil, searching for children’s souls, meets his match in a multi-level-marketing kindergarten teacher; in “Mary’s Wonderful New Grimoire,” a dying witch “exhales green smoke that smells like rancid poultry and burnt hair” (125) while her vegetarian daughter, dressed in pastels, is only at her mother’s deathbed to destroy her grimoire. Nick, the fired sales manager in “Mycology,” finds mushrooms growing on his penis when he is showering. I read this story a few times, trying to keep track of the different characters wandering in and out of Nick’s bathroom and to discern the meaning of the mushrooms. Nick wonders if the mushrooms are a miracle or an STD or a sign “his insides had completely gone to shit’ (194). Like Nick, I’m still not sure what the mushrooms mean.
Balanced against the slightly confusing “Mycology” is “The Pull of Old Rat Creek,” an engaging tale told through fortune cookies, emails, texts, whiteboard messages, iPhone transcriptions, Facebook posts, Health and Safety Incident files, and articles from CBC and The Weekly Ratter. Taking an X-Files approach, the story tracks the experiences of Margery Perkins, an overweight single mother who becomes physically attracted to metal after an incident on a railway track involving an aluminum foil wrapping on a spring roll and two passing trains loaded with iron ore and magnetic coal. The different mediums blend well and the story has one of the collection’s more surprising endings.
The Swan Suit experiments with fairy-tale parody, bizarre humour, and the grotesque, blending witty dialogue with cultural observations. If for no other reason, read this collection for the voice of the egg in “East O.”
The Swan Suit was shortlisted for the 2021 Relit Awards.
The Swan Suit
by Katherine Fawcett
Douglas & McIntyre, 2020, 224 p.p., $22.95
Kat Cameron is the author of two collections of poetry: Ghosts Still Linger (University of Alberta Press, 2020) and Strange Labyrinth. Her collection of short stories, The Eater of Dreams (Thistledown Press), was shortlisted for the 2020 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. She lives in Edmonton on Treaty 6 territory and teaches writing at Concordia University of Edmonton.