Hello, Sweetheart by Elaine McCluskey

(Enfield & Wizenty)

The 21 stories in Dartmouthian Elaine McCluskey's fourth book of fiction are portraits of life in Nova Scotia, but you won't find misty tales of lighthouses here. Instead, these stories take us inside a sex boutique, the Sears Portrait Studio, VLT rooms and a cat show, effectively balancing the dark with the absurd. McCluskey is skilled at nailing her oddball characters with a few well-chosen details. Take Ed, who believes he was born a chicken, or Bernice, "an asterisk person, one of those people who spoiled every pleasure, every minor accomplishment, with an asterisk" or Margaret, who takes a drink every time someone on Say Yes to the Dress says "I look like a princess." Characters are observed with bluntness and humour, but are also written with a compassionate eye, as McCluskey reveals their many facets, contradictions and vulnerabilities. These are unusually shaped stories that move rapidly and take interesting leaps, ending up in places very different from where they began. McCluskey trusts the reader to be able to read between the lines, and to keep up with experiments in language and form, as in "Rating Dr. Chestnut," where a character emerges through comments on a Rate My MD-style website. While many of the scenarios in Hello, Sweetheart seem bleak, characters find comfort or redemption in small, private moments, like happening to feel pretty great inside the penguin suit one has to wear as a steakhouse mascot. An entirely unique read.

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