This Cake is For the Party
  by Sarah Selecky

Thomas Allen Publishers
First Collection Awards: Finalist, Scotiabank Giller prize, shortlisted, Commonwealth Writers prize, Longlisted, Frank O'Connor Short Story award

"She thought of Pima. She shouldn't have thought of Pima but she couldn't help it. She thought, He has licked Pima in this very same way...It was like the thought of Pima that could turn Richard from a lover into a man who is just licking."

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

The image on the cover of Sarah Selecky's first collection, This Cake is For the Party, is very well chosen. Not only does it not contain cake, but for a few crumbs, but the plate is smashed. And not only that, a fork is lying casually on the pieces. Coupled with the book title, this is just fantastic preparation for the themes these ten stories grapple with. I didn't think about this at all on first readings, of course, I was immersed in the stories. But on my second, more analytical, reading I understood that the cover is talking about absence, loss, destruction, not on a massive scale, no earthquakes, no terror attacks. This is the small domestic level but no less devastating. A broken cake plate. How we hold the shards of our lives together.

Many of the stories have an absent presence, someone who is an offstage catalyst for events. Many also deal with the particular dynamics of being in a couple, the problems of communication with the loved on you are trying to share your life with, some seen from within the couple, some from outside.

Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart?
was one of my favourite stories. Christine is fourteen, a dangerous age, as witnessed by the opening paragraph: 
On the night her father died, Christine was in the dark of a Greyhound bus on the way on the way from the Big Smoke to the Big Nickel, in one of the rear seats behind the washroom stall, letting a man named Bruce Corbiere put his  smoky, apple-sticky tongue in her mouth.  It felt like a living thing, burrowing. This was Christine's first kiss. She was fourteen years old.
This is an opening that sizzles with violence, with transition, linking emerging sexuality with death. The story is told excellently in fourteen -year-old speak, and we see her father through Christine's eyes, while also feeling for her father, still grieving for the wife he lost ten years before struggling to raise his daughter. Notes found in pockets symbolize miscommunication, as well as foreshadowing "the last note". The end of the story is astonishingly good, with an Alice-Munro-esque jump (Selecky is also a Canadian, so the comparisons are inevitable) forward in time as well as a hint of the ghostly.

One thing that seems to characterize Selecky's stories is that she lulls you in with plain language, no fireworks, no purple prose, but then her stories unfold in layers, like a dark flower. The prose may be simply written but life is far from simple. Selecky's use of character names - Franny, Pima, Bruno, Brooks - and many small details adds richness. And she knows just when to shock, when to mention the unexpected, such as Janice, the offstage catalyst in the opening story Throwing Cotton, whose "latest project is a font she's made entirely out of pubic hairs", or the moment in This Is How We Grow As Humans when the main character, Franny, kisses her boyfriend's ex-lover's fingertips.

This Is How We Grow As Humans is an excellent example of Selecky's weaving skills. The opening line, "Two weeks before Franny and Richard announce their engagement, Franny meets Pima for a late lunch at Ogden Point" is packed to bursting. We are already told what is destined to happen (the engagement), and the "late lunch" seems also to convey a sense of finality, of death. There are so many ways this story could have been told, but Selecky embeds flashbacks within flashbacks to create a tapestry of the complications of human interaction - love affairs, betrayal, attraction, sex, miscommunication, disappointment. The endings is pitch perfect, as with many of these stories, open but satisfying.

Some of the stories begin with a lightness but end very far from there - Go-Manchura appears to be about one of those people we all know, the kind who "saves the environment" by buying expensive paper made entirely of garlic. Lilian, who has signed up to a company selling nutritional products based around something which is "like a mushroom", and has invited several friends away for the weekend to try and convince them to sign up. Two couples agree to come, but only one couple arrives. And things, of course, do not go to plan. This story is initially rather comic - Lilian's seemingly naive belief in the powers of the Go-Manchura products, but in fact is a tract on friendship, betrayal and loneliness. The ending is fairly heart-rending.

There are two stories of the ten that are told from the point of view of a man. The first, Watching Atlas, really didn't speak to me, I felt it was hammering its point home rather too loudly, with none of Selecky's usual subtelty. The other, which is also the final story, One Thousand Wax Buddhas, is stunning. It also begins rather mundanely, talking about cat diarrhea, of all things. But something compels you to keep reading, perhaps just the first line: "I've tried to think how it started, since you keep asking." This is too mysterious not to follow up on!

This is a slow-burning story, apt in that it concerns a couple who make candles for a living. Selecky's stories are around 20 pages long, on average, and they justify that length; nothing is superfluous. Apart from the cat's food issues, we hear about how to make candles, about a funny noise the car is making, about kids swallowing helium from balloons, and slowly, slowly, these build into a picture, of Robin, Keane's wife, who emerges as less than stable. And Keane, who has to find a way to live with this, such as when Robin smashes up "everything that could have been broken":
Eventually, I saw that she was right. It was more than a mess. It was beautiful. Sure, I was frightened when I saw it at first, but that was only because I was attached to all of the things when they were in their unbroken form. When I was able to see what she'd done, when she showed me how to look, I could see it: all the broken things were just things. She'd created something else...It pointed to something much bigger, something far beyond things.
And in many ways this sums up the thread running through these quietly powerful stories - everything breaks, much is already broken, but sometimes, broken is better, is something to be striven for. Eat the cake and then smash that plate. You may find yourself in a much more interesting place if you do. 

Read a story from this collection in The Walrus

Tania Hershman is founder and editor of The Short Review. Her second collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, will be published in May 2012. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Tania is writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University. 

Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"
Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"

Davy Byrnes Stories

Janice Galloway "Collected Stories"

Peter Orner "Esther Stories"

SeŠn ” FaolŠin "Selected Stories"

"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis"

Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud "A Life on Paper"

Jonathan Papernick "There is No Other"

Edgar Bayley "The Life and Memoirs of Dr Pi"

Anthony Doerr "Memory Wall"

Carol Emswhiller "The Collected Stories"

Rachel B Glaser "Pee on Water"

Helen Constantine (trans & ed) "Paris Metro Tales"

Shannon Cain "The Necessity of Certain Behaviors"

"Best Australian Short Stories: a Ten Year Collection"
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Sarah Selecky grew up in Northern Ontario and Southern Indiana. Her stories have been published in The Walrus, Geist, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, and The Journey Prize Anthology. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and has been teaching creative writing in her living room for the past ten years. She currently lives in Toronto.

Read an interview with Sarah Selecky