|Cover art by Cover Mint|
Next Chapter, 31 July 2020
Available as: PB, 98pp, e
Source: Purchased e-book
Quilaq is a beguiling novella in which fantasy and the real world bleed into one another - making it hard to spot where one ends and the other begins.
The town of Stokeland, in northern Canada, sits between two roads which are largely impassible due to use and snow, its main industries the zinc mine and trapping. It is, we're given to understand, a hardscrabble kind of place, both economics and climate making a living there difficult, but a bright spot is Shay's bar, presided over by Angie Barker, the first resident of the place we'll meet on our visit. Zooming cinematically in on Angie - she's 'thirty-nine and has been for a number of years' - we learn she's had a tough life as she moved North, left with 'a cracked rib and vernal disease' by one man. Then we're introduced, through her, to a collection of characters - the divorced Ray Sullivan, Gerry the Gin, two men, Jackie and Connor who are always together - who we'll see more of soon. Then there's Hettie, searching for her missing husband Frank; Hettie who supports her learning disabled son Ernest through scraps of sewing work.
As this group go into and out of view over a few hours, Burns shows their varying needs. All seem to have ended up in Stokeland without quite knowing why ('I can't quite remember why I came here'), or when. Lovers Jackie and Connor have been housed from one place to another. Hettie and Paul came from poverty and starvation in Ireland, as did Gerry. Angie - well, she had her problems.
There way the stories weave together is very clever and I find myself not wanting to say too much about it for fear of giving things away. Look closely and you'd be surprised at seeing this group together at the same time in the same room. Their need for - something? - is evident but they surprise each other as they, too, learn more. These inhabitants of Stokeland seem to have been able to live alongside each other without, quite, perceiving each other.
However, this is a night when secrets will be shared and an alliance made. This is a night when there will be talk of Quilaq - the place which 'seems to speak to a part of [Annie] that she has tucked away so deeply she has forgotten it existed'. It is a Shangri-La, a place of plenty, of safety, of refuge. But is it a real place, out there somewhere in the raging snow, or is it just one of Paul's stories - that well known teller of tales?
I loved the sense of community that develops in this book, the other side of the sense of desperation felt in different ways by everyone here. It's a short book but each character is sketched vividly, arrestingly: we don't know much about them but at the same time we know everything, and we care for and fear for them all, despite their faults.
Quilaq is at the same time fantastical and deeply grounded with believable problems all around. It feels like a glimpse into a sort of truce with reality, a potential moment of grace and escape.
Very, very enjoyable and I'd strongly recommend.
To learn more about Quilaq and about Rebecca Burns' other writing, see her website here.