Sunday, 27 March 2011

Review: This Cake Is For The Party, by Sarah Selecky

As part of my renewed commitment to YOSS, I have tried to pick up on one of YOSS's manifesto points, and will be endeavouring to read more short story collections.  The first story collection that I picked up this year was This Cake Is For The Party, by Sarah Selecky.  One of five finalists for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, This Cake has been really well received by both critics and readers alike, and I nearly squealed with excitement when I finally managed to get my hands on a copy.  I've been a fan of Selecky's for sometime, and harbour secret (not-so-secret now!) fantasies of being able to enroll in one of her short story courses at some point in the future.  (You know, when I am no longer destitute and living with my parents.)  She teaches creative writing out of her living room, and has done so for the past ten years.  She also participates in writing-and-yoga workshops in Toronto.  She is also, according to her Twitter page, quite a crafty person.   And, in case you haven't already noticed, she tweets wonderful writing prompts.  I have a bit of a writer's crush, I'll admit. 

Anyway!  Having had the extreme pleasure and honour of being published alongside Selecky in a previous issue of Prairie Fire, I was eager to see what other worlds she'd be inhabiting in her short story collection.  The ten stories in This Cake are mostly (with one or two exceptions) first person narratives, and each of the stories deals with a particular grasp on human sadness and disappointment.  In Throwing Cotton, the protagonist struggles with suspicions of her husband's infidelity while simultaneously trying to get pregnant.  In  Watching Atlas, the male protagonist deals with the reality of a dead-end job and the creeping anger he feels with his partner's childhood pal, a drunk who is all too ready to dump her young son on long-suffering friends.  And in my favourite story, Paul Farenbacher's Yard Sale, a woman watches as her memories of a beloved neighbour disappear with his possessions.  Every story is crisp and bare and essential.  One of the jacket blurbs advertises the stories as detailing "those tender, blasted-open moments that change us for good", and I couldn't agree more; reading it, I couldn't help but feel as tender and vulnerable as these struggling men and women.

The beauty of this collection, for me, lies in the fact that it's so deceptively simple.  These stories are so clean, so fresh, and so real, that to read them feels like watching a prima ballerina onstage -- you know, somewhere in the back of your mind, that hours and hours and days and a heck of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into making things look so easy, but everything plays out in front of you so naturally that at the end it all feels like magic.  When you watch that ballerina, some small part of you becomes convinced that they're just gifted -- that they glide effortlessly above the work.  And when I finished This Cake Is For The Party,  I felt the same way.  These stories do not feel like work.  They feel like ... truth, if that is not a terribly cheesy thing to say.  Selecky is a master of language, and it shows precisely because you don't notice the language, at least at first.  But I finished the collection and kept rolling certain details through my mind, remembering certain phrases, certain details that caught the world in a different shade.  Language that manages to do that is masterful language indeed.  It was lovely.   

Whether's she's illuminating the disaster moment of a hitherto happy marriage, or detailing a woman's shock at her soon-to-be-married best friend's infidelity, Selecky's focus on the small gestures that her characters make, and the things they do not say, take these ten stories out of the realm of fiction and place them squarely in the realm of everyday experience.  Maybe that's why they feel so effortless to me -- because they are, in a sense.  We are all of us vulnerable, and reaching out for one another in the dark.  Sometimes we find one another, and sometimes we do not.  And sometimes without knowing it we lose those that are beside us.

This is a gem of a collection, and all the moreso because I think it reminds us, ever so gently, of the fragile people and hearts we all hold in our hands, sometimes even without knowing it.  I highly, highly recommend it.

Rating:  ***** out of *****

[Edit:  The day after I posted this review, the lovely Sarah Selecky herself tweeted that reading it had made her teary!  How wonderful and fuzzy-feeling inducing and awesome.  I love Twitter.]


  1. Totally have this on hold at the library and am stoked to read it. I'm still 9th in line for it, which is better than being in spot 39 like I am for Room. Hah. They must have bought more copies because not long ago I was in the 200s for Donoghue's book.

  2. And Selecky is a UVic grad! Cool.