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Mermaid in the Jar

Anne Vial On:

Mermaid in the Jar by Sheila Heti

The Middle Stories was one of the first Canadian short story collections I ever read, in 2001. I was 25 (only one year older than the author) and working as young literary scout in London. I found them strange, surprising and so refreshing – they broadened my horizons. I’ve especially loved Canadian writing since. Just like the wide, open Canadian rural landscapes, its literature somehow strikes me as more free, fearless, imaginative and creative, while at the same time never failing in its subtle and humane (yes, sometimes even polite!) observations. No wonder short stories are so popular in Canada (more than anywhere else), it´s the genre of choice.

The Middle Stories hits you like a fairy-tale book sent trough a mixer (little bright pictures and all), shooting out the other side into our world, eyes wide open. Something has come undone, unbuttoned, unsettled. A sense of displacement grows as fairy-tale elements jar with painfully mundane surroundings. Innocence wrestling brutal reality. A mermaid kept in a filthy glass by a nightmarishly nasty little girl. A minute dumpling fallen from his pot, sitting on the kitchen floor awaiting his miserable death (shriveled or squashed). A woman living in a shoe. These are modern fables, urban fairytales gone wrong, confronting us with our very own cruelty. “Mermaid in a Jar” is a story about the dark side of human nature: pride, possessiveness, a sense of ownership, power-struggles, control and torture. We literally bottle up the magical – manipulating, poking and provoking it out of spite and discontent- childishly furious that it won’t give us what we yearn for: satisfaction.

Sheila Heti’s prose is simple and a punch to the stomach: unembellished, crystal-clear. A voice that´s unique, refreshing, young. Playful stories, rich at their core with wisdom about love, life, and loneliness. The universe she creates and we wander into- unknowingly – lets us marvel and recoil in shock. The acid truth breathes out at us from between the lines. Watch out: some of these nursery rhymes may give you reflux.

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