Bad Endings is a short-story collection close to home. From SkyTrain stations to hospital waiting rooms, Vancouver-based Carleigh Baker employs the familiar locales of the city (it could be any city) as a character in the narratives, complementing the bleak passages of time with the ever-rigid urban life. Again and again, characters try to escape the city and retreat to nature, only to find themselves unable to shake off the baggage of urban living. They are in the process of coming and going, searching for and never finding the peace that is promised by escape. This is something familiar to most of us.
Baker’s stories explore the false promise of home. “Delicate things are suffering,” laments the protagonist of the story “Grey Water” as she captures pond life – frogs, lizards, phytoplankton – and begins an ecosystem in a bathtub. She wants to protect “beautiful life, safe from everything, inside.” The reader cannot help but note her megalomaniac folly, the tragedy of assuming that we are powerful enough and strong enough to protect anything from the harshness of nature – ourselves most of all. In a story collection entitled Bad Endings, it is not insignificant that these stories often end with a promise of something better to come.
While “Grey Water” is one of the thematic highs of the collection, Baker’s other stories do not always achieve the same insight. When questions of youth and adulthood are at issue, as in “Read These Postcards in a Gonzo Journalist Voice” or “Imago,” the protagonists often feel like cliché caricatures of the real experiences of a young person confronting adulthood. These characters attempt to elude adulthood by remaining youthful and unattached; as a result, some stories themselves feel empty and immature.
Bad Endings is a good beginning for Baker. More often than not, her characters are full and real, and the plots challenging and ambiguous. This book is a worthy comfort for any day.