The Pious Robber

SPG REVIEWS, 2013

Harriet Richards’ The Pious Robber presents its readers with eight stories that will mesmerize, disturb, and delight. Every story in the collection strikes to the bone, and is brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized. One will be tempted to read the collection in one sitting, though the depth of the stories provides much fruit for multiple readings, honest reflection, and some animated and imaginative discussion. Richards is blessed with an unimpeachable understanding of illness, childhood, family, loss, and human psychology. Her narration is cool and detached, her dialogue crisp and seamless. This work is weighty and balanced: highly observant, darkly comic, and always fascinating.

This collection especially shines where it examines human frailty within the accepted boundaries that mark convention, produce (unwanted?) self-knowledge, and touch that squishy place in our psyche where we are most vulnerable and recriminatory. There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments in the stories “Tangible Reminders” and “Sometimes it Seemed”. These seem to be the moments in which intelligent people must work with the seemingly harmless social and cultural excesses that make day-to-day life a minefield. In “Tangible Reminders”, the main character, Alicia, looks through old items, attempting to re-order her new life. As she does this, she reflects upon her recent divorce and several encounters with her ex-husband, his lover, and a neurotic co-worker. All of these encounters, like that with the sandwich-maker in “Sometimes it Seemed”, are rife with comic inevitability and a wry sense that some people seem to be built for the purpose of withstanding grief, loneliness, the lack of consideration of others, and the accompanying sense of dread.

The stories in this collection that focus on the daily lives of its characters are as poignant as snapshots, as cardiograms of human trauma and feeling. However, there are also stories that deal with the more concrete loss of loved ones: to murder, in “In the Direction of the Three Sisters”, and to inescapable circumstance, in “The Blue She Needed”. The losses in these stories are devastating and unforgettable. Both stories are narrated by survivors who knew the lost ones. In “The Blue She Needed”, the narrator is a benevolent friend, with an astute and intelligent eye for those differences in human behaviour that, in retrospect, merit closer scrutiny. Again, Richards’s knack for observing her characters makes this a rich and touching story. In “In the Direction of the Three Sisters”, a mysterious narrator recalls the actions of three sisters, each of whom exercises her own unique influence over tragic events. The narrator in this story is an outspoken outsider suffering from an illness, lending the story a sinister feeling that it is being overheard, witnessed in the telling.

While the collection, as a whole, is very strong, the highlight is undoubtedly “The Pious Robber”, the title story. In this story, the landscape plays a central role. It exercises a mysterious power over the imaginations of two young girls and the unfortunate drifter who stumbles into their world. It is utterly sublime.

 This collection should not be missed.

national post, february 15, 2013

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

 Saskatoon StarPhoenix, February 9, 2013

Quiet, thoughtful stories will shake readers

In the blandly titled Sometimes it Seemed, the second story in Saskatoon writer Harriet Richards's latest collection, the story opens with that very phrase: "Sometimes it seemed that every day was the same thing." It then goes on briefly to tell of a crisis the main character, Mary Jane, is experiencing.

"A garden variety depression is a lovely phrase. It could be sold in salt-glazed wood-fired pots at farmers markets, bought by bewildered customers either for gifts or for themselves, to set on previously cheerless windowsills." This tongue-in-cheek nod to a case of depression is easily breezed past, just as the title is, and the writing that so casually acknowledges such a crisis in a woman's life is the achievement at the heart of these highly readable stories, Richards's third collection, The Pious Robber.

Nothing in the story is solved. The woman continues through the murk, bewildered by her own inabilities to grasp simple things. No one is robbed, dies or is even threatened, but to the woman, whose story this is, the crisis is real, and the humane way in which Richards treats her character, solving nothing but acknowledging all, is at the heart of compassionate care.

Richards shows this same quiet care in the opening story, Bagatelle, in which a woman who can't have a child listens on the long-distance phone to an old friend, a woman who is pregnant with the child of a man with whom she is in and out of love. Olivia, who can't conceive, listens as her beautiful friend complains again of "listening to some guy's nonsense and putting up with his clever, rank insults in hopes that he would stay with her, and her alone. That he would not wander again into another woman's bed." Ah yes, garden variety immaturity and adultery, but it still hurts, and someone is still there to listen.

The stories Tangible Reminders and One Day are similarly devoid of drama but quietly caring. The woman in the first story is full of "nameless worry," her sleep "dream-bothered and restless." Her husband has left her and no one notices her anymore. In One Day, the reader might almost miss that the main character, April, lost her sister to suicide. April is worried about her brother, about the rest of the family, about cleaning up after her elderly mother. People go on, quietly bearing their burdens.

The gentle listening that Richards brings to these quiet, understated stories becomes that much more vivid, then, when she takes on three dramatic tales, including that of the collection's title.

Sheer childhood innocence seems to protect two young girls on summer vacation as they help a hurt and seriously deranged robber to food, drink and protection from the elements. While posters in local stores warn of a criminal on the loose, the focus of the story is the girls' summer project, their own little pet to feed, their own little dress-up game.

And in the remarkable A Great Wrong, another innocent, this one a 15-year-old girl, is raped by a boy she liked and trusted. When the boy goes missing the RCMP comes calling, but the family has little to tell. A letter written 60 years later is both so sure of its rightness in dealing with the problem, but also so generous in spirit to those who helped deal with the wrong, that readers can only gasp their astonishment as they read over the retired police officer's shoulder.

Suicide, murder, rape, death by fire, alcoholism, mental illness, adultery, depression: This is the stuff of life in the land of Richards's stories, but humane kindness coupled with a bit of common sense and a few good personal boundaries is the coinage of the realm. Beneath story titles that wave no banners, Richards's words quietly move little mountains. — Bill Robertson