Women disappear when they veer off the path expected of them; diet until they wear a size 4; become an ex-wife; deteriorate slowly with the ravages of cancer. Julia Leggett has written about all the possibilities in her debut collection of short stories, Gone South. Each of the eight, well-crafted stories invited me to continue reading and led me to look forward to the next one.
Each protagonist seemed a bit wacky, but not quite. Their actions were probably not so different than the rest of us in similar circumstances. In the first story, "In Disguise," a red scarf becomes a symbol of freedom from a life lived too tightly. Isabel joins her husband Tom on a work trip to Rome. Sounds grand until they meet his co-worker Alessandra who, while once on the periphery, has now "shifted into full focus."
It helps to know a bit of the back story: When Isabel and Tom met at university they continued to see each other—not as a decision in her opinion. "She simply unfurled into him." While in the piazza, Isabel's red scarf blows from her neck, wrapping itself around the legs of a "dark haired man in a leather jacket." The author uses the unexpected in her descriptions: "The wind lassoed Isabel's scarf from her neck." Later as Alessandra appears to be orchestrating all their arrangements, "her voice sounded so bright it made Isabel think of tin foil." When Isabel's scarf falls to the floor and is forgotten in an espresso bar, it lays curled up "like a sleepy red snake." I wondered what transformation or temptation would take place when she goes back to retrieve it? When she does, she sees the man in the leather jacket and follows him. I thought of a Daphne du Maurier story and how strange and mysterious it became. I won't give away the details of Isabel's encounter but I found the story a fascinating one. It contains the very real details and feelings of ordinary life while having an enticing, mysterious layer of possibilities.
In "Lena Reynolds Gets Divorced," Mike is leaving Lena. He tells her from his car phone that he has met someone else. His is an example of passive aggressive behavior. Mikes sounds so reasonable but his decisions and his lack of response cause Lena to react or what appears to be overreacting. The story sounds all very real and heartbreaking until Lena begins to see strange lights in the garden. Her experiences are as if she's been abducted by aliens. All stress related or is something other-worldly happening to Lena as she learns to navigate new territory?
And there's Zoe who in "Versus Heart" meets Joel recently separated. Immediately we may say "beware," take it slowly. In fact, Joel suggests it. Joel doesn't seem her type. Also her "back catalogue consisted mostly of beginnings. Damp matches that flared and then fizzled out." Zoe was the one who had a tendency to "press the emergency eject button before take-off." Joel turns out to be a wonderful lover by her descriptions but there is that ex. She tends to be flip while denying what she really wants to say but gradually becomes more honest with herself.
The last story is the title story, "Gone South," about a young therapist dying of cancer. It's written in the form of letters to a friend and they could have been personally received by readers, they appear to be so accurate in their descriptions of the illness and the end of life.
All of the stories are mirrors of contemporary life. Insight, ingenuity and a talent for storytelling on the part of Julia Leggett helps readers take a closer look at ourselves.
Julia Leggett was born in Calgary, Alberta and grew up in Zimbabwe. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Now living in Victoria, B.C., Leggett is working on her Master's in Counselling Psychology as well as a book of poetry. Visit her website.
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