Parthian Books, 170pp
Before you open the pages of Burrard Inlet, you are greeted by a placid, calming and somewhat mysterious front cover image of what – if you do not know any better – can be described as a harbour or even a fishing port. Then, as you turn into the opening pages and catch a glimpse of the author’s bio (Tyler Keevil) you read that he once worked as an ice barge deckhand, amongst other jobs, and you realise that he actually took the photograph that adorns the front cover. This author is real and has lived a life that he is ready to talk about.
You do further research about what the Burrard Inlet is, and you find it is a body of water in Canada that separates the north shore of Vancouver from parts of the mainland. Then, it all fits together once the opening short story (‘Snares’) begins this intriguing, mesmerising and sparse collection of short stories.
‘Snares’ is the story of a day in the life of Alex, an ice barge deckhand (presumably Tyler Keevil), who is struggling with the dilemma of living a comfortable existence in a rest period on an ice barge while trying to save enough money to live with his long-distance girlfriend in Wales. This predicament, along with trying to pluck up enough courage to tell the dedicated, older, parental-like couple who live and work on the barge alongside him that he will not be staying on the barge another year, is slowly eating away at him and also drifting in thoughts that perhaps his long distance relationship is not going to work out. This story is speckled with fantastic homely descriptions that embed a strong family-like sense of the characters’ relationships such as:
The curlers and nightie are simply part of the routine – the same as the ducks, the coffee. The same as the scrambled eggs Doreen whips up for us. We sit down at the table together, Roger and Doreen on either end and me in the middle.
There are also vivid descriptions of a working life on an ice barge, regularly tangled up with perilous warnings about Alex’s state of mind: ‘The rasp of rakes across flaked ice is a constant background noise to our weeks at sea. The noise doesn’t bother me, but the nightmares do.’ However, even though the story builds up an impending sense of perplexing atmosphere as to what Alex is going to do about his girlfriend living all the way over in Wales, the ending pulls the plug with a lovely, settling image of Alex, Doreen, Roger and their grand-daughter Beverly, with her baby, all standing together gazing out of the window at the ducks that have just returned to their regular nesting place on the water close to the barge.
A particularly dazzling addition to this collection is ‘Carving Through Woods On a Snowy Evening’. It is the story of a snowboarder who is on the rescue hunt for a seventeen year-old lad who has gone missing on the treacherous and murderous slopes, told in such a way that from the get-go there is an impending sense of doom that is ready to swallow you whole – just like the slopes. The beginning is set in a house party where everybody is discussing the recent death of another snowboarder on the slopes and the protagonist, Mark, manages to give the reader a sense that the party has turned into more like a wake. As Mark helps himself to a top up, his pager goes off and he has to attend a rescue mission which he is glad of so he can escape the engorging atmosphere of dread within the house. Gripping and clever descriptions are employed, such as: ‘Half a dozen of them sat around the basement, nursing cocktails, nibbling on rum balls and gnawing over the same subject matter.’
As the story progresses and the rescue mission takes centre stage, Keevil seems to revel in his portrayal of the perfidious outdoors: ‘…branches whipping at his body and snow whispering beneath his board’, ‘…beneath his board the powder felt soft and dry as icing sugar’, ‘On the shoulder jagged snow banks – stained brown by dirt and grit – rose and fell like miniature mountain ranges’. It leaves the reader feeling as if they are looking at the vast wilderness through their own snow goggles, shivering as the sheets of snow attempt to drown them.
Burrard Inlet is, first and foremost, a collection of short stories that tries to recognise the relationship between humans and nature through separate human identities; troubled and comfortable, and disconnected, wild yet long-standing aspects of tumultuous nature. Secondly, it is a book that is honest, sparse and sincere, that has come directly from Keevil’s colourful life. This is a piece of work that, without a doubt, should be added to a book-shelf of short-story lovers and novel aficionados alike.