Inscribed with the epigraph, “This might hurt a little. Be brave,” Megan Gail Coles’s debut novel wears its trigger warning on its sleeve.
The title is apt; the setting is downtown St. John’s, and there are predators everywhere.
Small Game Hunting is contained in the span of one day at the “local gun club,”aka “The Hazel” – the second- or third-fanciest restaurant in town, where old money mixes with new. Sitting for dinner service, there’s a local theatre darling making eyes at the man she’s secretly hoping will propose, a politician making a handshake deal with the restaurant’s financial backer (“there can be no real contract or paper trail because that’s how they get you”), and two oil guys making a suspicious number of trips to the washroom in their multi-pocketed ski-doo jackets.
The restaurant’s staff, whose stories we learn through flashbacks and omniscient third-person narration, are scrambling to maintain order between rolling blackouts.
Coles’s background as a playwright reveals itself in the way she skillfully engages a diverse cast.The novel’s major events mostly affect Olive and Iris, two women in their twenties from the Northern Peninsula. But as a whole it reads like a poetic ensemble piece; the point of view maneuvering between more than half a dozen characters. Convergences between their backstories are disclosed as the plot thickens inside The Hazel.
Many of the characters are recognizable. You might know the bigoted, entitled mayor (he calls his server a “little bitch” during a dressing-down in front the whole dining room) or the philandering, rapacious head chef (he only got the gig because he’s married to the owner, a daughter of Circular Road’s east end).
The hardships endured by young Olive and Iris are difficult to digest, but Coles’s treatment of their trauma – gentle, but honest – shows that her grasp of affective storytelling transfers from dramatic stage to prosaic page.
At times dry and sardonic, and drawing a line between the urban-rural divide and its attendant colonialism, NL’s boom-and-busts, and the casual sexism that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever worked in the St. John’s service industry, Small Game Hunting is diagnostic of much of what’s wrong with the capital city.
While the back cover’s designation of the book as an example of contemporary Newfoundland Gothic is a stretch, there is something uncanny about how Coles turns the familiar into something horrifying. That these kinds of things have happened, are happening – in plain sight, just down the street – makes them all the more shocking.
Small Game Hunting devastates by turns. Maybe one of the hardest books you’ll ever read, it’s a poignant reminder to love each other more – to do better and be better.
Coles will launch Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club on February 7th, at Eastern Edge Gallery (8pm)