Editor’s note: Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is one of the five finalists in CBC’s 2020 Canada Reads competition. This debut novel from Megan Gail Coles was a finalist for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Coles, from Savage Cove in Newfoundland, is a graduate of Memorial University and the National Theatre School of Canada,. She has a MFA from University of British Columbia and is now a PhD candidate at Concordia University in Montreal. Book reviewer Doreen Yakabuski awarded it 4.5 stars. Here’s why:
The Dedication of the book includes a warning: “This might hurt a little.” That is an understatement! By the time I reached the end of the book, I was emotionally exhausted. But to call this book, with its examination of wounded people and shattered lives, less than brilliant would also be an understatement.
The setting is St. John’s, Newfoundland, on Valentine’s Day; most events take place in an upscale restaurant called The Hazel. The first section, entitled “Prep”, introduces a number of characters: Iris, the hostess at the restaurant, wants to end the destructive affair she has been having with John, the married, predatory chef of the restaurant; Olive, Iris’ friend, is the product of a tragic past and the foster care system and has an equally tragic present; Georgina, John’s wife and the owner of the restaurant, craves power and prestige; Calv, an acquaintance of Olive, cannot escape a toxic friendship; and Damian, a server in the restaurant, is a self-loathing gay man. The pace of this first part is slow; the focus is on developing the backgrounds and emotional lives of these characters. Initially, keeping the characters straight is difficult but readers should persevere.
In the second part, entitled “Lunch”, relationships among characters are further clarified and the storylines of the various characters are brought together. Tension grows as more and more people arrive at The Hazel. Just as a winter storm develops outdoors, more than one confrontation is inevitable indoors. Indeed, the third and final section (“Dinner”) is the most intense and dramatic.
The lives of women receive special attention, Iris and Olive more than other characters. They have experienced poverty, violence, abandonment, and misogyny. Women are in fact the small game mentioned in the title, often the victims of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. The author calls out the men who abuse and also those who do nothing to stop the abuse. She also rails against women who defend an offender: “He is loved because we love him and therefore he is good and not bad.” She attacks women who act as enablers by attacking women who choose to speak up against their abusers.
There is such depth to the characters that readers come to completely understand why someone does what he/she does. A character may make a bad decision, but the author reveals a character’s motivations and rationalizations in such detail that a reader cannot but accept that decision as logical given the circumstances and past experiences and emotional state of the character.
The writer has a distinctive style. The metaphors, for instance, are drawn from ordinary (often specifically Newfoundland) life. A man has the certainty of “a toothless bay grannie’s level of certainty, the kind that takes twenty years of card games in the church basement to curate.” John makes Iris “feel less concentrated than a tin of off-brand soup stock you only use up when you’ve cleaned the cupboards before holidays. Something to be eaten on moving day. The last bit of sustenance in the house.” A woman too depressed to eat properly speaks of every day in her life being a “storm chip day.”
Sometimes the writer veers away from narrative prose to the language of a rant. For instance, when outlining the arguments given in defense of predatory men, she rages against “the cliché trotted out the most because it’s the best/worst one of all, uttered at every girl before any training bra – ready, set, go: boys will be boys. But really, rightly, that statement should be disputed every time it is used to dismiss the very genuine and deserved complaint from girls just trying to survive as girls in spaces where even mothers are used against them. Mothers must stop competing with their daughters. Daughters do not make men mistreat them. It is not right or fair to punish daughters further out of envy. Keeping the dangerous path dangerous will not make them better women but hurt them still in the same sad ways.”
This book is not always an easy read. Some readers may be frustrated by some elements (e.g. the slow pace at the beginning; the large cast of characters, the unpunctuated dialogue in long conversations where speakers are not clearly identified). And because of its subject matter, the book is not a comfortable read. It is not for those who want just to be entertained. This book is for those willing to engage with a powerful piece of interpretive literature.
About the reviewer: Doreen Yakabuski, a Barry’s Bay native, credits the Barry’s Bay Public Library and the Madonna House Lending Library for cultivating her love of reading. After a career as an English teacher/teacher-librarian in Timmins, she and her husband, Jack Vanderburg, settled near Cornwall. Now, Doreen reviews books on her blog: https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/.