This is a book people have been recommending to me since literally before it was even finished (I first heard about it when author Megan Coles visited my podcast along with Robert Chafe, who made a point of getting her to promote the book she was, at that point, still working on). Everyone I know who’s read it has described themselves as having been overwhelmed or found it breathtaking, even though they also often describe it as “difficult.” And, indeed, the terse and cryptic author warning — “This might hurt a little” — on the page usually reserved for an epigraph, is absolutely a relevant warning for anyone opening the pages of this novel.
The setting is contemporary St. John’s, on a stormy Valentine’s Day when snow, high winds, and rolling blackouts keep most of the sensible townies indoors. The un-sensible ones, in this novel, are largely the staff and patrons of a hipster downtown restaurant called The Hazel. This novel has a large cast of characters, with point of view shifting frequently between them, and the author is not about to spoon-feed the reader any explanations about who these characters are and how they connect with each other. I will admit that I spent a lot of the first third of the book trying to figure out how everyone connects, weaving together the various threads of backstory we are given, and wading through some incredibly complex extended metaphors to get to “Who is this person and how do they relate to the other six people I just read about?”
Once that initial learning curve is mastered, which for me was about one-third of the way through the novel, the pace picks up as we begin to see how all these various characters connect and how their stories will converge on a stormy night in the only restaurant that stays open in the storm.
Violence and power are recurring themes as Coles ruthlessly puts the relationships among this group of people under the microscope. The characters range from nearly-innocent victims to brutal predators (the “hunting” analogy of the title threads throughout the book and is one of the novel’s more successful metaphors), but almost all are portrayed with empathy, thoughtfulness, and nuance, even those who are pretty obviously bad people — we see, at the very least, some of the reasons why they are bad people, or at least the fears and the past experiences that lead them to choose to do bad things, to victimize others.
The only exception (at least among the point-of-view characters) to this compassionate gaze, is the (fictionalized) mayor of St. John’s, who is portrayed as an absolutely cartoon villain without a shred of interest in his humanity, which I thought was an interesting choice, given how many (on the surface) “worse” characters are given at least the dignity of motivations. I don’t think this is in any way accidental: the author may be suggesting that the powerful and wealthy decision makers at the top of society’s pyramid (nearly always rich white men) are truly apex predators of this food chain, and less deserving of our empathy even than rapists and abusers.
Yes, there is rape and abuse in this novel, and both the acts and their aftermath are portrayed with an unflinching and often painful gaze. Remember, we were warned this might hurt a little. It does. A brutal gang-rape is placed next to an apparently consensual affair to show us how, though the two sexual acts are very different, power and powerlessness lie at the core of both. Women, as the narrator tells us in one searing passage, have so very little power. And some women have less power than others — poor women, indigenous women, rural woman, uneducated women, are the ones who, over and over, end up as the small game being hunted here. One passage — it’s hard to tell whether it should be described as the character’s internal monologue or the narrative voice, as it blends both — in which the potential consequences of reporting a rape are considered, is absolutely harrowing to read because we recognize its truth at the core, from the countless times we’ve seen the scenario play out. That passage alone should be required reading for everyone.
It goes without saying that neither the urban St. John’s downtown of the story’s present, nor the rural communities where the characters’ past lives are revealed in flashbacks, bear much resemblance to the tourist-commercial version of what our license plates once called “The Happy Province.” This is the dark underside of our culture, of every culture, and it’s displayed and dissected here in its most raw and relentless form.
Both in subject matter and in style, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is by no means an easy read, but it is one that is worth a reader’s time and attention. I ended up by being unable to put it down.