It’s not surprising that zines played a big part of Teri Vlassopoulos’ own coming of age. She knows how to do a lot with very little. The Montreal writer’s debut collection of short stories flows like an album of personal snapshots: a collage of secret deals, familial disappointments, innocent but misplaced hopes and relationships fated to doom. These are all stories about growing up, regardless of age.
Tragedies hover in family histories: car accidents and drownings are as commonplace as birthday parties and holidays. But there are no frivolous, overwrought details; Vlassopoulos favours sharp, simple story construction. She also has an acute sense of timing. Take “Fun, Fun, Fun,” where a doting but ignorant mother describes her son’s multiple professions—“a fireman, police officer or businessman”—and the pride he especially feels in the suit. Motherly love justified before she reveals the fact, a few paragraphs later, that Jeremy is a stripper, and those are his costumes.
Many of Vlassopoulos’ characters cannot see, or refuse to acknowledge, what’s right in front of them. In “A Secret Handshake” a father mistakes a red mailing tube for a bomb and calls the police, while the real danger to the family’s cohesiveness is his step-son Mitch’s increasingly rebellious attitude. Early on in “Art History” we suspect Daniel, a lecturing art history grad student working in a storage locker facility—an empty place where secret objects are stored in exchange for money—well before the young female narrator realizes that he’s cheating on his girlfriend, her sister Greta.
Each one of the eleven stories in Bats or Swallows is a little dioramic gem. However, there’s a sameness in tone and atmosphere, which becomes particularly noticeable when reading several in one sitting. Perhaps Vlassopoulos is unconsciously working out a character’s voice for a novel, which would be very welcome, as this collection will leave readers wanting more. —Sue Carter Flinn