A Review of Erin Frances Fisher's That Tiny Life
Review by Trevor Corkum
Erin Frances Fisher has been racking up accolades in the Canadian literary community for some time now. She received the Writers’ Trust of Canada RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers and her stories have won a number of prominent literary contests. With her debut collection That Tiny Life, she shows us why.
Two things strike the reader upon a first wander through Fisher’s evocative and wholly original collection. The first is her penchant for remote, bizarre settings. The haunting opener “Valley Floor” takes place in a sweltering American desert. “Winter Road” unfolds in the northern reaches of an ice road in the frigid Northwest Territories. “Argentavis Magnificens,” about a pair of young archeology students trailing a possible career-defining dig, takes us to far reaches of Bolivia. Not to be outdone, “That Tiny Life,” set in the near future, follows two young human colonists to the moons of Jupiter.
In Fisher’s hands, such remote and extreme settings become a powerful statement not just about human alienation—from the dictates of the social world, from other human beings—but also the necessary safe place from which to consider and view change of all sorts. In each of the stories, characters actively choose these lonely locales as a way to find the physical and emotional space to sort through their bad decisions and reconsider their painful pasts, as if distance itself might serve to stem their losses.
The second major thread, one that gives the stories their peculiar sheen, their sui generis, is the author’s love for particular and compelling detail. We’re deep in the mud of the archeological dig, being schooled about bones, or swept up in the creation of the guillotine in revolutionary France, as offered up in the very fine “Da Capo Al Fine.” Elsewhere, we witness a bloody amputation and its aftermath in the heyday of the American West. Fisher is unflinching and exact in her descriptions of the physical, utterly convincing in her rendering of the natural world.
Here’s a bit of the amputation scene from “Valley Floor”: "Sawbones returns the poker to the fire. He tongs a flask of iodine water from the steaming pan, lets it cool, and pours it over Roy’s stump. Washes yellow foam and bits of burnt skin. I stand and slap life back into my legs."
In her love of the scientific, her gleeful pursuit of historical accuracy, and the flat tonal rendering of the stories, Fisher’s collection is reminiscent of Irina Kovalyova’s Specimen. Both writers pursue their craft with an enviable and geeky devotion to a steady accrual of fact. While mostly this strategy is successful, there were times I longed for the emotional tension to break a little earlier, the repressed emotion of the characters to explode more vividly across the page.
Partly because of the temporal structure of the stories, the more problematic and messy plotlines occur most often in the past, at a strategic remove, to be viewed clinically and carefully by characters in their respectively distant futures.
In the brilliant and haunting dystopian space tale “That Tiny Life,” Nina is five years removed from Earth, and while she mentally replays various tensions with her earthbound Gran and her estranged siblings while conducting mining activities in space, the conflict itself feels remote, experienced only cerebrally and calibrated through the reaches of spacetime. Nina is a complex and compelling character, a familiar and contradictory combination of ambition and regret, agony and pride. Yet even after so many years of living within the company of only her fellow astronaut Barry, there’s not much hint of friction between the two. Their lives feel eerily sedated, which perhaps is Fisher’s point.
Fisher’s gifts are numerous, and That Tiny Life is a fabulous and extraordinary debut. With technical prowess to spare and a keen eye for the unusual story, it’s exciting to consider what lies in store for this author.
Trevor Corkum's novel The Electric Boy is set to debut with Doubleday Canada. An award-winning writer, educator, scholar, and editor, he has facilitated workshops and lectured across Canada and around the world. His fiction, essays, journalism and reviews appear regularly in periodicals such as the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail and his work has been recognized with nominations for the Journey Prize, a National Magazine Award for Fiction, a Western Magazine Award for Personal Journalism, the CBC Short Story Prize, and the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. A current PhD student in Adult Education at the University of Toronto, his research uses narrative and storytelling to explore notions of home, belonging, and identity in a globalized world. He divides his time between Toronto and the south shore of Prince Edward Island.