My friend’s name is Cloe. Mine is Derek. When we step off the train at Orangedale, Cloe’s parents are there to greet us.
With the last rouge of sunset dwindling, the coming night is filled with silhouettes. Spears of fog harpoon blue hilltops. We are coated, covered over, driving through wooded valleys towards Petite Église.
This is how André Narbonne opens his story “All Over”, and for me it captures much of what his collection Twelve Miles to Midnight is: straightforward, yet complex; unadorned, yet poetic; to the point, yet evocative. And always, there’s an element of mystery, discovery.
The 12 stories in “Twelves Miles” are loosely connected, beginning appropriately with childhood, such as the superb opening story “Half the Battle”, a narrative filled with a quiet tension, seen through the eyes of Derek and his frantically protective mother. We follow the story, not knowing what they are fleeing, lulled in a way by the boy’s new surroundings and friends (including a gun-loving neighbour boy) only to learn at the end what horror his mother must be facing (a case of nightmarish eye-for-an-eye revenge).
It’s these quick shifts in the narrative that keep us reading – that, and Narbonne’s knack for dialogue and touches of something poetic, magical. Magic, yes, but underneath everyone has a history and often it’s dark.
In “The Enchantment of Circe” we meet Derek – older, yet no more set in life – drunk in St. John’s, passed out along the waterfront. It’s the 80s and he is woken by Candice, who could have been cast in a Human League video. She invites him to her place to draw his “interesting” face (she’s aspiring to go to art college in Halifax). When she wanders away and returns, barely conscious, we realize she has overdosed. Does Derek race back to his soon-to-depart ship or does he stay and save a life?
It’s a momentous decision.
Many of the stories follow Derek (aka “California”) as he works as a porter on the Douglas Canada – a merchant vessel. They take place on the open sea, or in port, and have more than just a ring of truth – Narbonne spent years working on such ships.
Other standout stories include “At Uchi Mine” where two boys on a boating adventure come across a dying wolf, “In the House” with its quiet, touching surprise ending and “The Last Empty Chair,” perhaps the story most indicative of Narbonne’s fiction, his strong characterization and unerring humanity.
These are finely-crafted stories – they’re rarely more than 3000 words long – that contain the seeds of much more. Highly recommended.