Heather Birrell has an uncanny ability to read my mind, or perhaps – as Float and Scurry illustrates – I am not alone in seeing the beautiful in the mundane, or the purely ordinary in flights of fancy. Here, the anxiety of modern life goes hand in hand with humour and a battered but undaunted hopefulness, capturing the deliciousness of an inner life, either sleepwalking through dreams, or in the day-to-day pageant of our many masks. Knowing I had such a canny and capable tour guide, this book was a rabbit hole I was glad to dive into.
-- Ronnie Burkett, master puppeteer, Officer of the Order of Canada
Like any blizzard, “Snow Day Poem” works by a steady, unrelenting accretion. The poet presents a flurry of what-ifs, worries, woes, and whimsy mirroring the absurdities that wrack the cabin-fevered mind. Beguiling and playful, with precise cadence and diction, the speaker of “Snow Day Poem” has personality, making wry observations of a world “gone all bridal” in mid-winter.
-- Kevin Shaw, judge’s notes on Arc Poetry Magazine’s poem of the year shortlist
In her new collection, Mad Hope, Birrell puts her talents on display once more, exploring characters whose reasonable expectations of the world have been devastated by sudden death (sometimes violent) or other tragedies. The losses her characters experience leave them yearning for alleviation of grief, pain or even regret. (…) Birrell achieves a seemingly effortless originality and accuracy. (…) Some of her characterizations are so arresting in their exactness they caused me to pause.
— Kelli Deeth, in the Globe & Mail
There’s a voyeuristic quality to Heather Birrell’s stories. The Toronto author seems to have mastered the art of writing about universal themes and subjects — marriage, family, motherhood, death, sex — in a manner both familiar and unsettling. Her prose is dense with detail yet fluid, carrying the reader into the inner workings of her characters’ carefully constructed lives. That’s where the sense of peeping comes into play: these people are so wonderfully accurate, so blatantly human, that to bear witness to their hurts and despairs, ecstasies and triumphs, elicits the same discomfort one feels overhearing the neighbours having an afternoon romp or catching a friend giving her child a smack on the bum in a moment of anger or frustration. Birrell peels back the layers of civility to expose the dark and messy bits we all hide, but she does so with such finesse that we are simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the intimacy of it all.
— Dory Cerny, in the May issue of Quill & Quire
Pickle Me This
rob mclennan’s 12 or 20 questions
My favourite beach read so far this summer has been Toronto writer Heather Birrell’s short story collection, I know you are but what am I? Birrell’s writing is full of tastes and colours and zingers like ‘the slow red sun’ that ‘bursts into the white light of southern hospitality. ‘Y’all,’ says the sun, and really means it. ‘Y’all!’
—The National Post
(…) Heather Birrell has collected nine of her smart and sassy stories of the urban condition in yet another well-packaged outing for the fully revived Coach House Press. (…) Birrell has a grand eye for the small detail that is the hallmark of the well-made story. Best of all, there’s little Chick Lit preoccupation with the sad lot of sexy young singles in a collection that features both kids and adults, ‘kleptomaniacs, convicts, roof-walkers and homicidal hippies.’
As in all the stories in this marvellous, elliptical collection, where the story begins gives hardly any sense of where it will end, or what it might be about. (…) The reader follows the scenes, all of which are ‘swift, shiny, and vulnerable to vantage point’ willingly, because of Birrell’s precise and inventive descriptions (a woman has ‘legs like tree trunks and a mouth like a rip in a mattress’), as well as her acute sense of psychological intricacies. This is story by juxtaposition rather than strictly linear narrative, and if the stories in this collection owe something to the marvellous circularity of Alice Munro, they also pay tribute to Raymond Carver for their quiet, restrained accumulation of meaning. (…) In these wonderfully written stories, it is the unshakable rendering of life and its random vantage points that yields meaning.
—University of Toronto Quarterly