The initial reviews of Light Lifting were excellent, but largely lacked the critical language that entices me to pick up a book. I don’t know if it’s a shortcoming on my part, or the way the literary conversation goes here in Canada, but I got the distinct impression that MacLeod’s stories were just very well executed variations of standard Munrovian realism. Because the book is published by Biblioasis I felt sure I’d agree that it was an excellent book (I have yet to be disappointed by anything of theirs), so I dutifully bought it, thinking I’d get around to it in the fall when that sort of thing seems to appeal to me a little more than usual. When Bronwyn and others started raving about it on Twitter in way that felt different, exciting, I knew it couldn’t wait and I wanted to be involved in the conversation, so I moved it to the top of the stack. That was months ago, but I’ve been a little blocked this year, so my review is coming very late.
Light Lifting is an astonishing achievement. I almost don’t even know where to begin. There’s certainly an element of Munrovian realism, but it’s foundational, built so deep into the structure of the book that at first you’re lulled into thinking that’s all that’s there; you get inside these stories and walk around in them for a while, and no matter what strange and wonderful things you see, there’s no danger of them collapsing on you, and you know that there’s no danger—of that kind, anyway—because that realism is there with you too. Most of these stories have a darker element to them, though. An edge that you don’t always see coming, and conclusions that could have gone shaggy dog in lesser hands.
The strongest story in the collection is probably “Adult Beginner I,” which was anyway my favourite by a wide margin. Stacey is a new swimmer, conquering a long-held fear in a class full of old folks who are just trying to keep busy. At first she can’t seem to make anything happen, but the good-looking instructor helps her make that first step, and afterwards she becomes kind of a savant. The water helps her get braver, and MacLeod takes her through the delicate steps of realizing a crush and figuring out what she’s going to risk, and how far she’s going to let her body take her, with its newfound grace and power, which contrasts excellently with the elderly swimmers who are just trying to maintain a basic level of fitness without compromising their safety. Treading water, essentially. The dark turn the story takes during the midnight swim is surprising, and continues to surprise as it develops and as Stacey finds herself quite literally in deep water, but it feels natural, inevitable—no, inexorable. It was incredible.
Several of the stories in Light Lifting follow this pattern. MacLeod starts of with what could be considered a fairly straightforward, almost domestic premise; a track star with his best days behind him (but only just), a child doing work well beyond his years, a university student taking on a summer job, a parent with a sick child. He explores each of those subjects with insight and subtlety, and then takes it one step further. The world doesn’t exactly shift, but that one extra step never seems like it’s a step too far, never seems out of place or unbelievable, no matter how unlikely the circumstances become. “Adult Beginner I” and the titular “Light Lifting” almost read like the embodiments of a parent’s worst fears, but in MacLeod’s hands they don’t seem paranoid; rather they are eminently reasonable, and doubly terrifying as a result.
The closest thing in Light Lifting to a weak story is “Wonder About Parents,” which is about a family facing the reality of a seriously ill child. It’s written in abrupt sentences and sentence fragments, short on pronouns and adjectives. It’s a style that emphasizes the immediacy and the frustration of the situation, but it is much longer than it needs to be (all the stories in Light Lifting are very long), and though MacLeod sustains the style admirably across all thirty-two pages, I think if it had been even one paragraph longer it would have been too much, and the whole thing would have fallen apart.
Light Lifting is a brilliant debut collection, so brilliant it’s hard to believe it’s MacLeod’s first book. Once I started reading it all I wanted to do was talk about it and share the experience with others, and I had some really invigorating conversations on Twitter with Bronwyn Kienapple, who had some excellent insights into these stories (I wish she would write about them).
Light Lifting was my seventh selection for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge.