Fiction Review by Susan Olding

Clea Young, Teardown (Calgary: Freehand, 2016). Paperbound, 225 pp.; $19.95.

TeardownI read most of Clea Young’s Teardown while wedged into an economy-class window seat on a nighttime flight bound from Toronto to Victoria. As my neighbour adjusted her headset and lost herself in the Technicolour romance of La La Land, I followed Young’s more ordinary and complicated characters through the streets and restaurants, warehouses and shops of less-fabled coastal cities to the north. About an hour into the movie, Air Canada’s media server inexplicably quit, but even if it had worked perfectly, I’d still have been the winner of the in-flight entertainment lottery. The stories in Teardown share with La La Land an edge-of-the-continent setting, a mostly youthful cast, playful wit, sparks of romance, respect for their genre’s traditions, and moments of surprising, surreal beauty. But they go beyond mere surfaces to trouble the myths that make those surfaces seem so appealing. In the process, the stories convey a truer sense of contemporary life in Victoria, Vancouver Island, and the lower mainland than a dozen cinematic confections.

A man loses his pregnant wife at Ikea; an unemployed woman wobbles home on kitten heels after an office holiday party she has crashed; a different woman runs into an old flame on the ferry, steals an apricot Danish at the cafeteria, and gets caught; long-married high-school sweethearts pick up a pair of hitchhikers on their way to a friend’s wedding and face up to their mutual betrayals. These characters are typical and recognizable, yet oddly off-kilter. They live in, or among, the “teardown” houses of the book’s title. This is a place where even Subaru-driving suburban parents can feel precarious; where the environment in the form of a powerful wave or a sudden firestorm might knock them to pieces or burn them to ash, and where a miniscule shift in real estate values could render them rich or homeless in an instant. Longing for love and connection, they teeter on the brink of solvency, self-understanding, maturity, and commitment.

Just thinking about caring for his unborn child makes the narrator of “Teardown” shaky. He cannot picture the baby in a crib, and cannot understand why his wife keeps insisting they furnish a home. Similarly, Holt, the dad in “Chaperone,” has so much trouble imagining himself as an adult that on a school excursion, he buys his teenage daughter and her friends the illicit alcohol he’s there to prevent them from getting. Tova, of “Split,” secretly rejoices when her period arrives, even though—or perhaps, because—she knows her boyfriend is eager to become a father; Kirby and Ben try to escape their own baby for a sexy weekend only to find themselves unwilling caretakers of a teenage niece and her friend in “New World.” These are people who want and don’t want the trappings of adulthood and all its responsibilities. They know what they are “supposed” to do, but what if they’re not up to the task?

Teardown’s stories may centre on youthful characters, but with their economical characterizations, deft pacing, and sly reveals, they are intelligent, accomplished, and mature. Most have appeared in literary magazines. Several have been anthologized in Coming Attractions, and three have been short-listed for the Journey Prize—attesting to their individual strengths. Yet taken together, they’re even more impressive, for set between two covers, they do more than introduce us to appealing characters who are struggling with interesting problems. In addition, they subtly and incrementally summon an atmosphere and convey to us the power of place. The ferries, beaches, conifers, craftsman’s houses, pastel apartment blocks, and swimming holes of Vancouver Island and the lower mainland may make it seem like an idyllic playground, but ferries sink, the ocean has an undertow, trees are subject to clear cuts, beetles, and fire. In other words, a beautiful backdrop can’t save anyone from making tough choices and facing tragedy. No wonder commitment seems risky. No wonder these characters hesitate to dive in.

Given its west coast setting, it’s not surprising to find Teardown filled with images of water. Ocean, lakes, waterfalls, rain—all make repeated appearances in these pages. Yet what lingered for me even more were its evocations of light. The book begins with an argument over a chandelier, as a frustrated mother-to-be tries to illuminate her husband about the impending changes in their lives, and it ends in a Vancouver warehouse where a woman tiptoes uncertainly toward her future amid a labyrinth of lunch-bag lanterns. As our plane neared its destination, my seatmate jabbed uselessly at her personal television with a lacquered nail while I peered out the window. Below us, Victoria’s lights flickered like the beeswax candles of Young’s final story, spread out in poignant patterns against the dark. With its sharp and graceful language, its empathy for human frailty, and its openness to the unexpected, a book like Teardown sheds a radiance all its own.

—Susan Olding

As in The Malahat Review, 199, Summer 2017, 112-116