Emma Geliot's picture

Sealskin 3

 

As Tyler Keevil s collection of short stories yields a winning entry for this year s Journey Prize Emma Geliot looks at a exceptional body of work, drawn from experience.

I stumbled across Burrard Inlet, a several weeks ago, bought it and carried it around with me for a week or so, waiting for a quiet moment to dive in and finally opened it in on a long bus journey. I have no idea what landmarks I might have passed on that trip, my mind was far away in Canada, my nostrils twitching to the faint aroma of rotting fish, fresh blood and illicit substances.

From the opening paragraph of Snares, the first of a trio of stories set on an ice barge, I was drawn in. Keevil s writing has been compared to Raymond Carver s and I can understand the comparison, although the voice is most definitely his own. As with Carver, Keevil s stories are like ink on wet blotting paper-there s a dense dark core of story arc, spare but telling detail and dialogue, yet around that dense mass is an aureola of implied back narrative and a sense of a continuum past the final full stop.

I ve had to re-read several passages, looking for detail or narrative that I finally realise my mind has back-filled each sentence spawns new ones in the imagination and tiny descriptions trigger connections to fill in the gaps so that the characters really do come across as fully-rounded with the lightest of pen strokes (well, keyboard taps I suppose).

Many of these stories have been published or anthologised elsewhere I came across Mangleface in the anthology of Welsh writing Rarebit last Christmas and was astonished at its freshness and the way it prompted the most complex of responses. While many writers can draw on their own experiences, Keevil s employment history has provided fodder for story settings that many other authors can only imagine: a video store assistant; a deckhand on an ice barge; a tree planter, amongst many more. He could labour the detail to underline his credentials for writing about these contexts but, instead, there s just enough to convince. The story is all in the build up of atmosphere, of tension, as uneasy situations play out, injustices are dealt with, or philosophically absorbed, and feelings are evoked.

I m snowboarding down a mountain s virgin snow in the moonlight, pioneering through drifts on a search and rescue mission pleasure in that moment mixed with anticipation of what s to come (Carving Through Woods on a Snowy Evening) - and I ve never so much as strapped on a ski for novelty effect. Or I can feel the blisters popping on my hands as I try to dig through unyielding ground, planting saplings (Tokes From the Wild). In the same story I am an interloper in a friend's family and then a workgang; not fitting in, trying to fit in. Each slice of prose in this baker's dozen has something fresh to say about human nature and many feature up characters struggling with a sense of separateness.

But it is in the story Sealskin that the authorial voice really sings - a kind of music that combines the mournful keening of some large sea mammal with a kind of riding-the-railroad blues and something really sonically complex, probably involving a lot of knob-twiddling but seemingly effortless (I realise that this is not a helpful description). So I wasn't surprised when, a few days after I'd reluctantly turned the last page of Keevil's remarkable collection, I learned that he had won Canada's Journey Prize for this completely original story (follow the last link to read a free sample). Sealskin stayedwith me for days like a literary hangover. So much so that I reached for my dusty and unused pencilsand inks to try and draw the final scene, then discovered my scanner was broken. The above image is an attempt by someone who is not an illustrator (and who really can't use Illustrator) to catch at the coat tails of a dream.

 

Burrard Inlet is published by Parthian Books www.parthianbooks.com

Find our more about Tyler Keevil www.tylerkeevil.com