Kerry Lee Powell’s Lost Souls Seeking Home

This is an evocative collection, and though there's trauma and violence, there is also tremendous beauty and, throughout, real humour.

Sometimes, it doesn’t take long for a reader to realize what’s on the page before him is not your usual literary fare, that the words set down have more than just the purpose of telling the story, that these words have pace, rhythm, are surprisingly chosen, that something deeper is going on. That feeling hits you with the first line from “In a Kingdom Beneath the Sea”:
“Today’s the day Mitchell Burnhope gets the royal shit kicked out of him.”

This story, winner of the Malahat Review‘s Far Horizon Award, opens Kerry Lee Powell’s debut collection, Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush. And if you think that this exceptional story – a story of a stripper and a foolhardy man in love with her, a story full of humour, beauty, and violence – is the collection’s highlight, you only have to read on. In story after story, Powell surprises, playing increasingly on a theme of lost souls in search of home, often fleeing from past traumas.

But back to the language. What’s going on? An innocuous beginning and then a sharp turn. And just look at the name, Mitchell Burnhope – itch, hell, burn, hope – and you know things aren’t going to end well. It’s this poet’s talent for richness, for filling her narratives with layers both symbolic and emotional, that puts Powell’s stories above so many other collections.

A little further on another gem, the titular “Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush,” shows what can happen when a poet’s voice meets exceptional storytelling skills. In the story, which has the feel of a dream gone mad, we meet a couple in a theme park, riding the rides, more bored than dramatic, but then they are victim of an act of sudden, horrific violence. The way it unfolds lulls us the way life often does and when violence comes, it’s unreal.

Or in “Talking of Michelangelo,” which begins with the fabulous line, “I took my kung-fu instructor off speed dial today. I was leaning on him too much for advice.” Seemingly light hearted at first, but as always in Powell’s fiction more is going on. Characters are haunted by past events. And as much as they may need to skip along the surface, avoiding those shadows, they can’t. Powell shows tremendous perception in handling the complex psyches of her characters, and uncommon skill in sketching scenes that resonate long after you’ve finished the story.

From the ending of “The Prince of Chang,” one of several stories to feature characters met in bars:

“When I looked down it was a though the rest of the city was necropolis that had built itself around him, the lit staircases of the fire escapes zigging and zagging up to the sky, the polished stone facades of the skyscrapers mirroring the moon and clouds, and all of it sprawling out into suburbs and ragged clumps of darkness.”

This is an evocative collection, and though there’s trauma and violence, there is also tremendous beauty and, throughout, real humour. Nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize, and longlisted for the Giller Prize, this mature, insightful collection is worthy of all the attention.

Do such writers come out of nowhere? Powell’s name began to surface in the Atlantic Canada (she has been based in Moncton for the past six years) when she began to pick up award after award, including the aforementioned Malahat Review’s Far Horizon’s Award, the Boston Review’s Aura Estrada Short Story Contest (for “There Are Two Pools You May Drink From,” a meditative, powerful piece) and the Alfred G. Bailey Prize for her poetry collection Inheritance (published in 2014, nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award). Maybe, like Powell’s characters – always travelling, always wandering, searching – all a writer needs is a chance to sit a spell, gather wits, find calm and create. New Brunswick is a fine place to do that.

This is an evocative collection, and though there’s trauma and violence, there is also tremendous beauty and, throughout, real humour. Nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize, and longlisted for the Giller Prize, this mature, insightful collection is worthy of all the attention.

Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush
by Kerry Lee Powell
Harper Collins

Written By

Lee D. Thompson is a fiction writer, editor and musician from Moncton, New Brunswick.

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