Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson
If things had gone according to Eliza Robertson’s original plan, this year’s most anticipated Canadian fiction debut would never have happened.
The 26-year-old Vancouver-born first-time author of Wallflowers (Hamish Hamilton, $22) didn’t spend her early years dreaming of becoming the next Michael Ondaatje. Instead, she yearned to be a lawyer. “I wanted to represent sex trade workers,” she says from her current home in Norfolk, England, where she’s studying at the University of East Anglia on a writing scholarship. “I was really interested in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the missing women.”
It wasn’t until she was three years into a political science degree at the University of Victoria that Robertson, almost on a lark, ended up in a writing workshop. “Sometimes,” she says, “you have these whims that end up changing the course of your life.”
Wallflowers arrives on a wave of hype rare for a Canadian debut: Robertson stunned the Journey Prize and Commonwealth Short Story Prize judges with playful, complicated and surprisingly grim short stories that belie her youth.
Some of that darkness stems from her early passion for legal work. When she still wanted to be a lawyer, Robertson spent a summer transcribing interviews with sex workers for an advocacy organization, an experience that bleeds into the new work. One devastating story in Wallflowers captures the constant haze of casual violence that hovers around street prostitutes in Vancouver.
Another, written as an etiquette guide for women, details an abusive marriage and an eventual murder plot. Robertson revels in twisting conventions. She uses unusual, playful structures—a ship’s log, letters exchanged between brothers—to mask her serious intent, making her writing at once lithe and thematically dense.
There’s a lot going on in these stories, but Robertson’s craftsmanship makes even the darkest tales go down easy.