Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Anna Leventhal’s debut book, Sweet Affliction, is an insightful piece of fiction filled with dark grace. The work is a collection of fifteen short stories connected by a unique cast of characters and their urban lifestyles in French Canada, and it thrives on Leventhal’s astute observations on the moments that make up everyday life.
The collection follows a cast of characters through various stages of their lives. Each story holds only a sliver of a character’s experience, but it is enough to allow us to see that the moment will, in some way, define that individual. Sweet Affliction begins with Gravity, a story about a wedding and a pregnancy test told through the bold voice of the first person narrator. The stories continue along this trajectory of blending the seemingly mundane with the significant, from an annual staff Christmas party in A Goddamn Fucking Cake, to a young girl’s dance class in The Yoga Teachers.
There is something exciting in the way Leventhal brings characters back in different stages of their lives so that we can see how things are related to each other. The young woman in Helga Volga appears again, this time as the aging mother in Wellspring, when we get a chance to see how her choices have impacted her daughters. Her friend in the hospital makes an appearance earlier on at a party when we learn of conflicts he has with his own wife. However, the stories are not necessarily told in chronological order, which seems to work well for this collection: it serves to keep the reader constantly trying to piece together the lives of this cast of characters that we come to care for.
Some stories accomplish this connection better than others. Maitland and Helga Volga are particularly strong, largely because they stay locked in a specific moment while demonstrating the lasting implications the situation will have. The Shirt and The Polar Bear at the Museum are also gems (though their titles do not do the stories justice). However, some stories don't capture the same magic: Horseman, Pass By is an interesting examination of the relationships between housemates, but it stretches out too long without conjuring the emotion of some of the other pieces.
There is also some inconsistency with the voice of the collection. Though changing the perspective from character to character is accomplished without issue, there is no consistent voice from story to story, as some are told in first person, while others are told in second or third. This has the effect of privileging certain characters over others, and it’s unclear if this was the intention or not.
These points, however, pale in comparison to the richness of the writing. The strength of this collection lies in the details, in the small moments of life that we don’t realize we’ve noticed until they’re on a page in front of us. This allows the book to be memorable in a way that most are not. The ability to make a reader remember a goat cheese sandwich passed around at a gift exchange, or a girl who scavenges the sidewalk for the dregs of other people’s cigarettes, are the kind of unique images that set this collection apart.
Leventhal’s stories are able to guide us through full ranges of emotions that are often only attainable in a longer work of fiction. There is a rawness to this collection, an honesty about the stark details of city living. Sweet Affliction moves us through these spaces with ease and a kind of gritty charm that helps, even in the book’s dire situations, to find that which can be redeeming.
Sweet Affliction is published by Invisible Publishing.