I live next door to a house that’s divided into apartments. Downstairs there’s a few people: a woman with a dog, a guy who smokes skunky weed. Upstairs is a couple with a kid: they seem nice, like to play loud music on the weekends and, recently, they had to pack up and move away. I don’t know much about my neighbours, but do any of us really?
Indeed, it’s common to wonder what the lives of those we live around are like. What is the person talking on the cell phone hearing? What are the people in the corner of the Christmas party talking about? And what are the couple looking at the painting in a museum actually seeing? In her debut collection of stories, Carmella Gray-Cosgrove’s Nowadays and Lonelier takes readers into the inner lives of such people, poking around in overlooked corners and with people living on the fringes. Her stories are touching and have a sense of realism, are packed with characters looking for a connection or something to hold on to. It shows Gray-Cosgrove as a new voice in Canadian fiction.
In 22 stories, Nowadays and Lonelier takes readers around the country and into the lives of dancers, painters, baristas and soldiers on leave. These stories follow people living between the margins, often just above poverty. Often, they’re either struggling or dealing with repercussions of addiction. But where it would be easy for someone to moralize and turn these characters into symbols of reliance, Gray-Cosgrove makes them into more fully-fleshed individuals who maybe make bad decisions, but they’re trying. It makes for a compelling read.
Most of the stories are set in or around Vancouver, on the Downtown Eastside. That’s where Gray-Cosgrove grew up, although she’s now based out of the East Coast. She’s a writer with a long list of bylines, her fiction appearing in Canadian literary magazines like Broken Pencil, PRISM International and The Antigonish Review. A handful of those stories are included in Nowadays and Lonelier, but the majority of what’s here is exclusive to this collection.
It opens with “The Dance of the Cygnets,” which follows a ballet dancer from a broken home and a sister desperate to connect with a sibling who only wants to focus on her art. The themes of addiction and broken promises start here too, and they reverberate throughout the book: the people here have problems and some of them will do anything to run away from them.
Elsewhere in the book, Gray-Cosgrove writes about teenagers getting in over their heads, a woman travelling across the country by herself, a nanny with a coyote living in her closet. These people are solitary, living the kind of lives they never quite wanted for themselves. They find themselves being chased on the street by men looking for sex or accused of theft by their employers. But they have small moments of epiphany and a way forward makes itself clear for them. It’s sort of like Joyce’s stories in Dubliners, in that way, although Gray-Cosgrove is not exactly the kind of stylist that Joyce was.
That said, she does show a bit of range in her stories. Both “Blunt Object” and “The Weight of It” are tense and terse dream sequences with memorable, anxious imagery. Meanwhile, “Blue Like the Sky” is a fragment in the second person.
When Gray-Cosgrove connects, she hits it out of the park. Central to this collection is the story “Float” where the narrator recounts a relationship gone sour while she gets ready to sit in a sensory tank at the spa. In just a few pages, Gray-Cosgrove takes you into France and a son bringing his new girlfriend to his mom’s house. They don’t hit it off and things go sideways. The narrator wants to forget it all and vanish into the tank of salt water: “It will be a rebirth,” she writes, “I think it will inspire me, that I will emerge unstoppable, my creative force unleashed.”
Elsewhere, “Another Angel” takes the transformative power of art and mixes it with a bit of history, a story that leaps between the present and the past, reality and the world of the painting. Gray-Cosgrove whips between these timelines with ease, bringing the reader into the world of the painting while also examining the effect it has on people. It’s well done.
Indeed, throughout the book, Gray-Cosgrove shows herself as an interesting new voice. At times, I was reminded of Casey Plett’s last collection, A Dream of a Woman, while at other times of Meira Cook and Lisa Moore’s books. There’s a deep sense of empathy for her characters and they come through as flawed yet compelling characters. They struggle with pills, with shitty boyfriends and with making it through another day. But they do, and life goes on.
All in all, Nowadays and Lonelier is a welcome debut and an interesting collection of stories about the kinds of people one sees all the time, but never really knows. It’s big-hearted and well-told. Recommended.