I grew up in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Bordered by Lake Maracaibo and the humid rainforest of the Sierra de Perijjá, Maracaibo is a city of heavy smells, heavy sun, heavy heat, heavy clouds. It could not be further from the cold waters, lush and cool forests, and thunderless rain of the Pacific Northwest. Bad Endings, a short story collection by Vancouver writer Carleigh Baker is a book set firmly in the Northwest landscape, one where lead coloured skies, chilling winter rain, and the proximity to wild and majestic nature are part of the everyday palette of sights and experiences.
Baker’s sense of place is deep, and many stories feature locations and images that I could see in my mind long after I finished reading them. It made me realize how much I have internalized this landscape myself, and how it’s now part of my own visual vocabulary. Though delightfully vivid, Baker’s writing is also economical and practical; each story a painting made out of thin brushstrokes.
Thematically, love is at the center of many of the stories, though not in the ways that we expect. A couple embarks on a grueling vacation to the Arctic, another goes on Tinder, for different reasons, when a work trips keeps them away, another goes for tea after a divorce. There are also many strange and funny moments, but the humour always appears amid the uncomfortable, a coping mechanism to face a difficult situation.
What I most loved about Bad Endings however, is the recurrent theme of work, usually manual work. In one story it’s handing free newspapers at the Skytrain station, in another, memorably, is beekeeping. But work appears in almost all of them in one way or another and Baker has a great way of getting inside the job and describing the ways in which the body and the mind are transformed by it.
Baker has called the stories on Bad Endings “thinly veiled nonfiction.” This is illuminating; her stories have very much the quality of having been found through the hard-earned moments of clarity that come after conquering difficult work, be it beekeeping, recovering from heartbreak, or by truly having been tested by nature. Baker’s eyes are clear, her stories intimate and at times, personally, almost uncomfortably real. What we are left with are beautiful, distilled moments of truth, humor, recognition, happiness.
Bad Endings was the City of Vancouver Book Award winner in 2017. Visit Carleigh Baker’s website to read more about her work.