The Other Side of Youth, Kelli Deeth. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013.
Review by Zoe Sharpe
Kelli Deeth’s The Other Side of Youth is a collection of acute and subtle short stories whose characters have reached various emotional thresholds. Here we have stories of longing, loss, and fragmented identity, recurrently within a gendered (female) experience. The prose itself is startlingly vigilant in its precision, emphasizing the emotional precariousness of its characters. “Embrace” follows a narrator whose recent abortion has her desperately clinging to a sense of security as provided by her lover. Presumably driven by deep shame, the unnamed narrator pays careful attention not only to her own self-perceptions but to the assumed perceptions of others: “I liked having the scarf wrapped around my neck … I liked that Reg had tied the scarf and I wished that others had seen him do it … The people who passed us would think I lived in a house” (44). This gesture toward a double-consciousness occurs throughout the book.
The narrators in this collection share a desire for connection, coping with loses which are never fully explained to the reader, loses which somehow cannot be explained through language. In “In The Midnight Cold,” two old friends, Sara and Joanne, become silent in the face of Joanne’s cancer diagnosis: “Joanne and Sara hardly talked. As the four of them sat out in the backyard, and Joanne and Derrick’s little boy Jeremy played in his plastic pool, there was an awkwardness between the friends that hadn’t existed before, a loss for words” (57).
The emotional disconnect between the desire for kinship and the inability to express this desire permeates these stories. Often this emotional disconnect results in a focus on the physical body, the character’s only refuge for comfort. In “Correct Caller,” the young, female Petro-Canada cashier engages in a sexual relationship with her much older, married boss: “The sensation of his hand there, rubbing it firmly, made Michelle want to give something up, some longing, some idea she had about how her life should be: a straight line heading toward the future” (130). Here, language becomes inadequate. There is an inability to describe the longing, a quiet futility in the idea of “a straight line heading toward the future,” a tentative imperative judgment in that little word: should. The threshold presents itself and the narrator becomes uneasy, reaching toward an embodied alleviant.
Deeth’s prose operates on a strange, vibrational level; the sentences rely on a distinctly visceral discernment. In many instances there is a negotiation between the physical and the emotional. Feelings of loss, inadequacy and longing are held within the body, a place language cannot penetrate. The inability for language to seize the knowledge of the body is the crux of these narratives.
The stories place importance on issues of class, gender, trauma and notions of suppressed identity. Interestingly, while the social politics that affect the characters are apparent, their impact remains cleverly concealed. How do we read a book about women struggling to cope? It would seem insufficient to ignore the systemic conditions that exist to place these women into a body politic. Deeth’s book is not a pointedly political one; instead it inserts itself and excerpts itself from multiple discussions of social identity in one fluid motion. In “End of Summer,” Sandra, wracked with guilt over the recent death of her brother, wrestles with a perceived violence in the budding sexuality of her peers while facing the inkling that she, too, must participate:
She had the feeling she always had that she was ugly, a pulsing blob of flesh … At night, when there were boys there, things could happen, things a girl wanted to happen. The ones who wanted it never ran fast enough. She was going to have to go there, and she was going to have to let them, and it couldn’t wait. She needed to be altered (26).
These are stories about individuals, and can be read as such, though the collectivity of their sentiment is undeniable. The effect of this duality is thorough, dexterous and attentive in its hand, calling forth the various similarities and contradictions between female experiences.
The Other Side of Youth is an examination that rests on the other side of ignorance. At stake for these women are their futures. The manifestation of these futures seems to come at the cost of painful confrontations, both personal and political. What these narratives do is lend their characters, even for a moment, a language to describe their despair, their resistance, their resilience.