An exploration of the human condition – 2013 Giller Prize-winning Hellgoing by Lynn Coady


Image credit: CBC Books

Many of us innately know when we’ve veered from the path we’re meant to take in life. Sometimes the sway is so minute we don’t notice until we’re faced with something monumental. And yet too often our efforts to understand and acknowledge what makes us human isn’t enough for us to grab life by the horns and drive ourselves to become the person we want to be.

Sometimes, our negativity pulls us all the way down, hell going, through addiction, self-affliction, confrontation, confusion, and denial.

From a functional alcoholic travel journalist who attempts to understand the symbolism of her dreams, to a bride-to-be who continuously seeks pain for attention, to Mr. Hope who has lost faith in love, Lynn Coady’s 2013 Giller Prize-winning collection of short stories, Hellgoing, exposes the damaging qualities that are potential in all of us, and the haphazard ways in which we deal with them.

Coady stands out as an extraordinarily talented writer who expertly navigates the complexities of the contemporary female mind.  Perhaps by Coady’s intention to explore the sometimes twisting and inconclusive cavern of a woman’s psyche, I haven’t come across a single review of Hellgoing that captures my construal of the diverse experiences of her characters. As if by design, each short story grants a snapshot of existence; a moment in time expanded enough for examination, and opened enough for interpretation.

While women are the primary focus of all her stories, Coady gives weight to their male counterparts and frequently sprinkles in her usual dry humour to ephemerally uplift a rather disheartening account of humanity. Admittedly, this was my first encounter with a short story collection, and I confess this review process has been challenging. It’s tempting to establish a few blanket themes for the works, and yet I feel any attempt to do so would be a disservice to those keen to read them. Each story, while complementary, speaks for itself. The only thing tying them together is the human condition, which Coady delicately, and devastatingly, reveals through her crisp and poignant prose.

Coady leaves entire portions of her stories unanswered and open for interpretation, enticing her readers to connect with her work individually and draw their own conclusions.

What happened between Hart and his father that was so unspeakable?

What did Sara experience in her childhood that provoked her to write her award-winning memoir, Escaping Eden?

What was it about Mr. Hope that drew Shelly to become a sexual abuse prevention counsellor at the elementary school she attended?

To respect the spirit of her work, I think it’s most appropriate to leave you with a few passages that capture, for me, the essence of what Coady is communicating, rather than to pick the stories apart, strand by strand, in a way that would unthread their meaning.

Instead, let’s start a discussion. What do these passages mean to you as they relate to your own experiences?

Wireless, page 23:

“She read that Freud treated people with recurring dreams – good and bad. He made them talk and talk about the dream until finally the patient understood precisely what was going on in his or her own head. The moment they did, the dream would depart. Freud drew back the curtain. He was like Toto, the yappy little rat who took the magic out of Oz.”

Hellgoing, page 41:

“This was sudden childhood. The walk to the mailbox. The peek inside for mail-treasure. Because sometimes, Theresa remembered, the postman just forgot to put the flag up. Or it fell down on its own, but the mail remained within. That was the earliest lesson, when it came to vigilance, the giddiest lesson. You flew to the end of the road no matter what the flag was doing, you didn’t hesitate, you stood up on your toes and had a look either way. You could never trust the flag.”

Dogs in Clothes, page 57:

“We are divided beings. We are shaped to feed upon our fellow creatures, just as they are shaped to feed one another. We tie ourselves in knots to avoid the reality … We don’t want to know. We are ashamed … The real anguish resides in our break with the animals. We don’t want to harm them; yet we’re made to harm them. This is why they are innocent and we can never be … This is what it is to be human – to be human is to be fallen.”

An Otherworld, page 96:

“It was one of those detonator moments – a conversation that implodes time and space and opens up a kind of portal, like a video game. You pick up a coin or open a chest; you say the right thing, or say the wrong thing. And next thing you know the world around you shudders and gives way, depositing you into a completely new dimension, an otherworld.”

Clear Skies, page 119:

“There will always be attitudinal differences – from one story to the next – is what I’m saying … My point is, they’re all still going to be stories, no matter what category we choose to put them in – fiction or non.”

Image credit: CBC Books 


About Alexandra Reid

Alex Reid is Marketing Manager at Soshal where she helps lead the agency's national marketing, business development, and recruitment initiatives. Prior to joining Soshal, Alex was a technology journalist and consultant for B2B technology businesses focusing primarily on the strategic processes necessary to bring new technology to market. Beyond co-hosting IABC's The Voice podcast, Alex volunteers her talents as Director of Partnerships at Canadian Women in Communications and Technology (CWCT), and as a Communications Committee Member at The Well, a gathering place for women and their children. Alex holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University. Known vices include eating crackers in bed and cat gifs.
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