Fiction Review by Corinna Chong

Laura Trunkey, Double Dutch (Toronto: Anansi, 2016). Paperbound, 264 pp., $19.95.

Double DutchLaura Trunkey’s Double Dutch is a short fiction collection that revels in navigating the most far-removed perspectives imaginable. “Electrocuting the Elephant” dives into the mind of a circus elephant on the brink of execution; “On Crowsnest Mountain” begins with an ethereal chorus sung by the molecules in the air at the mountain’s summit; and “Winchester .30-.30” assumes the persona of a gun as it recounts its murderous journey from hand to hand across icy northern lands in the early twentieth century. These stories enchant with their wildly imaginative and often absurd premises, and yet remain grounded in honest and relatable conflicts.

A common feature amongst these stories is the way in which Trunkey engages in panoramic storytelling, whereby various angles of the same story are explored in succession. The most effective example of this approach is “Electrocuting the Elephant,” a fictionalized retelling of the true story of a show elephant named Topsy that was publicly electrocuted on Coney Island in 1903. The story begins by introducing Frederick Thompson, the amusement park’s owner, as he frets over successfully pulling off the spectacle of the elephant’s execution and, ultimately, the fate of his park. The point of view then shifts to Topsy’s as she is prodded and coaxed onto the electrocution platform, then to the eyes of Whitey, Topsy’s guilt-ridden trainer, and later still to Thomas Edison, the “Wizard of Electricity,” reluctantly commissioned to design the specialized 6600-volt electrocution machine and film the spectacle. As the narrative weaves between the four perspectives, the story gathers its intersecting layers of internal conflict like an electrical charge, buzzing with anticipation for the switch-flipping moment. While viewing the story from the perspective of an animal may initially make readers suspect that the narrative is doomed to descend into a maudlin and superficial lament for the cruelty inflicted upon the elephant, Trunkey treats this challenge with restraint and fastidiousness, cultivating a sense of genuine empathy that turns Topsy into a character both naïve and wise and, ironically, more human than those who threaten her. The elegance of this restraint is particularly admirable at the story’s conclusion, in the very moment of Topsy’s agonizing death:

“All she could see was smoke. It billowed from her body and the pain billowed with it. It seemed impossible for it to grow, but it did grow. It swelled and spread until there was barely room for her in her body. Until she had been squeezed into a small kernel of herself, and that kernel was thrust upwards. It was thrust upwards until it was pressing against her skin. Harder and harder it pressed. And then it broke through and the pain was gone.”

As inventive and immersive as the story is, the changing perspectives and limitations of the elephant’s viewpoint make it a bit disorienting and nebulous at times, especially for readers lacking prior knowledge of the historical event who may miss some important facets of the narrative. Similarly, the other stories in the collection based on historical fact seem to depend upon readers having fairly detailed knowledge of the subject in order to fully appreciate them.

In several of the stories that are not historical in nature, Trunkey repeatedly plays with the notion of paranormal spirits overtaking and controlling the minds and bodies of her characters. In “Ursus Arctos Horribilis,” the protagonist believes his wife exchanged spirits with a bear in a near-fatal encounter that left her in a coma. In “Night Terror,” a mother is convinced that her rambunctious two-year-old son is speaking Arabic in his sleep, and is thus channeling the spirit of a terrorist. The repetition of this trope weakens both stories, although “Night Terror” emerges as the stronger of the two for the way it treats its deeply flawed characters with such sensitivity. In this story, the mental competence of the protagonist, Nicole, is increasingly questioned as she rejects the racism inherent in her assumptions, admits to depression and self-alienation, attempts (unsuccessfully) to convince a hypnotist that her son may be a terrorist, and finally resorts to recording her son’s unconscious gibberish in hopes that a translator will confirm her suspicions. Still, Nicole comes across as a very real and very sympathetic character whose behaviour can be understood as a reaction to the overwhelming pressure that all parents face, encompassed by the deft assertion that “She had sacrificed sanity to supply her son with every building block required for a perfect beginning, to guarantee he would turn out right. And it hadn’t worked.”

Trunkey’s precise and controlled prose—tinged with a darkly comedic slant, even when dealing with the gravest of subjects—is enough in itself to engage readers fully in the worlds she creates. “Double Dutch” contains some of the sharpest writing of the collection. When Noah, a hired stand-in or “double” for President Ronald Reagan, finds himself in a love affair with Reagan’s wife, he describes her body through a series of striking images: “Cassiopeia of freckles on her left shoulder blade, a scar white as teeth on her ankle, tea-stained splash on the inside of her right thigh, nipples the colour of a bruised peach.” For the strength of the writing as well as the central themes, this is a fitting choice as the title story. The emptiness of his role as a double eventually leads Noah to witness the erasure of himself; he becomes, in effect, a kind of ghost. In some cases literal and others metaphorical, all nine of these stories contain characters who grapple with ghost-like identities. Trunkey’s ability to explore this theme with such maturity and complexity in her debut collection points to a promising literary career ahead.  

—Corinna Chong

As in The Malahat Review, 200, Autumn 2017, 169-171