The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Uncertainty and Chance: The Little Washer of Sorrows: and Other Stories by Katherine Fawcett

Reviewed by Marc André Fortin

Katherine Fawcett

The Little Washer of Sorrows: and Other Stories. Thistledown, 2015.



Katherine Fawcett’s collection of short stories The Little Washer of Sorrows is an imaginative foray into human behaviour, archetypal characters, and the wild and unpredictable nature of life. Myth and fairy tales are given a contemporary perspective, and there is often a sense that strange forces seem to be acting on the minds and desires of the characters, or that things are not quite what they seem on the surface. The uncanny and the threat of the trauma of the real are playfully intertwined into the ever-present possibility of life shifting from solid footing to unreal in a swift ungentle moment.

The collection contains a rich panorama of human experience built up through playful language, an intertwining spectrum of pop culture, contemporary technology, and basic human needs and desires in order to reach into the core of human affect through a dark, comedic view of life. As Black Mirror updates Twilight Zone, so too does The Little Washer of Sorrows play with well-established psychological concerns and literary symbolism to delve into our shared neuroses, and the unbelievable in new ways.

There is no link between the stories in Washer of Sorrows, but Fawcett’s interrogation of chance, choice, and effect all seem to be part of a focused perspective on the nature of life as risk. Although the narratives are not specifically focused on this question, nearly all of the stories delve into the ways in which human beings risk their lives, careers, and relationships through subtle and incisive shifts in the choices the characters make. As many of the characters exist in precarious social and financial positions, Fawcett’s work offers a wide-ranging study of contemporary society through mythic, archetypal stories that tap into the ever-present “presentness” of contemporary culture.

This idea takes place in a number of different ways. In “Swimming to Johnny Depp” a woman seems to see Johnny Depp on a raft in the middle of a lake. Believing that Depp is calling for her to swim out to him, and creating a fantasy built on the ultimate illusion of love (or perhaps pushed by this fantasy) the woman enters into the lake with her clothes still on, pushes away from the dock, and “experience[s] complete immersion” (160). Apparently forgetting that she does not know how to swim, the dream image trumps reality and she risks all for the end goal. “Dire Consequences” employs a similar tension between reality and belief as seen through the lens of risk. After being scolded by her mother for not eating her broccoli, a young girl tells her mother that she will die if she eats the broccoli. Her mother pushes aside the exaggeration, and the child eats the broccoli. She then curls up on the couch and dies. The girl’s brother takes advantage of the newly formed belief in the seemingly literal power of verbal threats to get away with anything he wants. The mother’s fear of this threatening power puts her in a position in which she must concede to her son’s constant demands or risk being responsible for his death. In both of these stories, albeit it in different ways, the risk involved in the situation produces the narrative thrust of the characters’ behaviours through the underlying emotional fears and desires inherent in the human being.

In “All Inclusive,” an older couple propositions a younger couple into sexually performing in front of them, in order to relive their earlier sexual selves. The younger couple end up in a disagreement over the morality and eccentricity of the proposition, but the money involved in the offer is too much for them to finally resist. Both of the couples, staying at an All-Inclusive resort, end up involved in a risk between proposition and performance. For the characters in this drama, a number of questions arise: what does this possibility mean?; what is at stake in choosing one way or another?; and what is there to lose or to gain in the process? Fawcett uses similar narrative strategies built around risk in “Johnny Longsword’s Third Option,” “Candy on the Jesus Bar,” “The Siren Sisters,” and “Your Best Interests.”

Fawcett’s adept ability to plunge into the absurd and comic is controlled by the deeper meanings that surface through the way in which the characters choose to move forward. Overall, this collection is a dynamic, funny, and weirdly discomforting work that leads one to look more closely at the world around, and inside of, them.

Marc André Fortin teaches at the Université de Sherbrooke. 

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