'At her best, Richards displays an admirable tendency to underplay her hand...'
THE PIOUS ROBBER | NATIONAL POST
The cover images on The Pious Robber, Harriet Richards’ third book of fiction, and The Modern World (Oberon Press, 112 pp; $19.95), Cassie Beecham’s debut, are strikingly similar. The former is a photograph and the latter a painting, but both employ muted colour schemes of sickly browns, greens, and yellows, and feature a woman, seated alone and looking away. Both evoke stasis and contemplation, appearing at once recondite and sober. But the quietude and classicism of the images belie the raw emotion and creeping unease that pervade the work of both authors.
The sombre presentation is arguably more appropriate in Richards’ case: The eight stories in The Pious Robber are serious in tone and subject, and written in a style that marries precise language to occasional flourishes of lyricism. Innocence and experience are Richards’ twin subjects; the distance she examines is that between the naivety of childhood and the relative understanding of adulthood, but she is equally adept at dramatizing the ways in which grown women remain blind to their circumstances until life forces the scales to fall from their eyes.
In “Tangible Reminders,” for example, Alicia is clearing out the remnants of her life together with Neville, who had been carrying on an affair with a “simpering retro-dressing, pre-Raphaelite-ish, dyed-auburn-haired, underweight girl” half his age. Alicia has smelled Neville’s lover on his clothes and skin, but her suspicions are not confirmed until she stumbles across the unlikely couple huddled together in a food court. The moment is typical of Richards’ strengths. Although Alicia insists the encounter is “not a scene of fine drama, one that might have purged [her] disgust and rage,” the author cannily uses the quotidian setting and mundane circumstances to increase the tension. When Neville’s young paramour acknowledges Alicia’s infertility by referring to “the, um, no baby thing,” the older woman’s whispered response — “Are you out of your f—ing mind?” — carries markedly greater impact than a retreat into overheated histrionics ever could.
At her best, Richards displays an admirable tendency to underplay her hand, resulting in an increased emotional payoff for the reader. The stories falter when the author abandons this instinct and gives in to the temptation to provide too much in the way of description or information. In “Tangible Reminders,” Richards writes, “The room came into soft focus under the faint illumination of street lights forced through venetian blinds. She shivered under the too-thin comforter, provoking an agonizing charley horse in her right calf.” The pile-up of adjectives in these sentences is de trop, and is it really necessary to emphasize for a reader that a charley horse is painful?
The impulse to provide too much, like a zealous dinner host forcing food on her already-stuffed guests, is most pronounced in “A Great Wrong” and the collection’s title story, both of which end on notes that are overly explicit. In the first case, 15-year-old Ava is raped by her malcontent boyfriend, who subsequently goes missing. This story exemplifies Richards’ deft use of point-of-view, when the third-person limited perspective shifts midway from that of Ava and her brothers to a sympathetic police officer investigating the young delinquent’s disappearance. A transition that would seem jarring in lesser hands is effected here with great grace and fluidity.
However, the letter that Ava, now in her 60s, sends to the retired policeman at the story’s close, detailing what happened to her assailant, is an ineffective means of exposition, and provides specifics about matters that would have been better left implied. Similarly, the final scenes in “The Pious Robber,” a story about two young rural girls who befriend a drifter with a shadowy past, become too clear about the man’s history and crimes, paradoxically denuding the sense of creeping discomfort that has been building throughout the story. In fiction, as in life, things are much more disconcerting if they are not allowed definitive resolutions.
— Stephen Beattie
The Pious Robber | February 15, 2013