What might guarantee “a gustatory climax without the mess and aggravation of sex”? For the first character we encounter in C. I. Matthews’s short story collection, Took You So Long, it’s mushrooms. Specifically, morels, which Kathryn Maxwell seeks out on her farmland, desiring the “anatomical perfection” of Morchella and flavours that “titillated the taste buds.” She pursues the elusive fungus as a balm against her complicated relationships with other humans, including her ex-husband, Stan, and her neighbour and sometime lover, Norman. But Kathryn never gets her sought-after delicacy. Instead, she falls into a sinkhole from which there appears to be no escape.
Scrambling to find purchase on a knot of slippery ferns, her calls of help unheeded, Kathryn uses her entrapment to reflect on her failed marriage as she slowly loses consciousness. Confined to a small space in circumstances beyond her control, punished for her yearning, and staring down a lonely death — you could say the same about most of the major characters in Matthews’s oddly pleasing debut.
In “The Collectors,” a journalist is seduced by a pungent cup of tea, only to find herself kidnapped by a pair of serial killers who share a foot fetish. “In Honour of Miriam” features a man named Walt who spends the summer solstice haunted by the ghost of his recently deceased wife, an artist. In “Unfolding Recipes,” a woman successfully escapes a violent childhood home, but her reward is a sterile and lonely adulthood and an aversion to home-cooked food.
Like the sinkhole that derails Kathryn’s mushroom hunt, quotidian desire in many of these stories is actually a trap in disguise. But whereas in “The Hole,” treachery lies out of doors, elsewhere Matthews trains her eye — and her ire — firmly on the home, which, for her, is neither sanctum nor escape. Rather, it is a repository of violence. Sometimes this violence is cast in the tropes of popular horror, as in “The Collectors,” which pays homage to Silence of the Lambs. At other times, the grotesque morphs into metaphor, as when Walt’s encounter with a jar of rotting chicken gizzards reminds him of his wife’s ingenious method for catching flies — and thus reminds him of his loss. Most often, domestic spaces in Took You So Long are sites of intergenerational trauma and abuse. In “Unfolding Recipes,” the narrator’s childhood is dominated by her parents’ tense and loveless marriage. In “Missing Mike,” a widowed mother accidentally causes a house fire that nearly kills her son and leaves her permanently disabled. Over and over, Matthews gives us characters — mostly women and children — trapped in circumstances they feel powerless to change or escape from.
Matthews lives in Ontario’s Bruce County, and the book’s promotional copy locates her characters in “the landscape of the Saugeen watershed south of Owen Sound, in the lee of Lake Huron.” But, save for the morels, neither this landscape’s flora and fauna nor its geographical features loom large in the collection. Instead, these stories are generally set in the kind of small town that recalls the fiction of Alice Munro: with nosy neighbours, unwanted parking lot run-ins, idle gossip. Munro’s stories feature people who also hightail it to the city, who have sex with the wrong people, and who otherwise challenge their community’s conservative mores — or at least dream of doing so. Yet Matthews’s characters do no such thing. Instead, they exert whatever limited agency they recognize within themselves: adopting a pet, taking an alternative route home from school, declining to get out of bed.
Matthews’s refusal to mould neat arcs for her characters is refreshing. Indeed, there is a tendency in modern fiction to filter one’s life story through the lens of a traumatic past, as the critic Parul Sehgal recently noted in The New Yorker. This approach can lead to an implicit expectation of plot as therapy, where narrative closure manifests as healing. Matthews resists such pressure: often, an individual’s minor act of rebellion is unwise, self-destructive, or outright dangerous. Instead of coming through on the other side, they seem determined to poke, needle-like, at the oppressive structures encircling them — even when these oppressive structures are self-made.
This strength of plotting is not always matched by the quality of Matthews’s prose, however, which tends to tell rather than show. Walt, for instance, completes Miriam’s final sculpture, which might invite interpretation as a small yet triumphant act in the long and lonely process of learning to live without one’s life partner. But when Matthews describes the work of art as “pleasing relief from the ache of his grief,” she renders Walt’s actions transparent, thus shutting down different understandings of his personality. Similarly, “Unfolding Recipes” is replete with unsettling images that forcefully convey the narrator’s traumatic childhood — flecks of dirt from her father’s clothing, a drop of blood in her mother’s pancake batter — such that the line “My parents put me in a tough place for a child,” delivered near the story’s end, feels unnecessary.
One notable exception to this tendency is found in “Wet Nurse,” which features Beth and a group of friends known as the Vixens. During a drunken game of Truth or Dare, at their regular Friday night gathering, Beth confesses that she once breast-fed her infant nephew. The friends are shocked and horrified, leaving Beth embarrassed. So far, so Matthews: woman desires human connection; reveals a secret to achieve it; is alienated and left alone as reward. But she then turns this dynamic on its head.
“There were things Beth had not told the Vixens, let alone revealed to her real sister,” we learn. Eventually, she returns to the group to finish her story, leaving these same friends “mesmerized” by what she had shared — and claiming control through the knowledge of what she continues to withhold. The conceit works because information is also kept from the reader. What does Beth want here? Sexual pleasure? Maternal connection? Power over her peers? It’s not clear, and this ambiguity means “Wet Nurse” is the strongest — if the strangest — piece in the collection.
It is this decision to dwell in the weirdness of everyday life, to examine with curious interest the bizarre choices people make to carve an unusual edge out of their otherwise conventional lives, that makes Took You So Long a gratifying read. Better, some might say, than morels.