Infused with eroticism, poignancy, and insight that cuts to the bone, these stories lead us into a tipping world of emotional wagers, loss and discovery, power and impulse. A marriage is tested as a mother struggles to cope with the disappearance of her prostitute daughter. Two angry women in a minivan act out their frustrations as they rampage through the night. A pill-dependent nurse juggles neuroses, infatuation, and exhaustion while supervising a high school dance-a-thon. A quiet tattoo artist takes in a homeless woman, and stumbles upon the true nature of beauty, jealousy, and love. Written in taut, unflinching prose, these stories are edgy and dark, sharply observed and uniquely imagined. As provocative as it is brilliant, Dead Girls introduces Nancy Lee as an astonishing and original new literary talent.
About the author
Nancy Lee lived her early years in England before immigrating to Canada. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She teaches at the Simon Fraser University Writing and Publishing Program, and is Associate Director of the Booming Ground Writers Community.
Lee’s first book of fiction, Dead Girls, was named Book of the Year by NOW Magazine, and was a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, as well as in the 2001 Toronto Life Summer Fiction issue. She was one of seven writers selected by Margaret Atwood for a special CBC Radio feature on new writers to watch, and a jury member for the CBC’s “Canada Reads” program for 2003. She is the recipient of many grants, fellowships, and writing awards, including the Gabriel Award for Radio.
Nancy Lee lives in Vancouver, where she is at work on her first novel.
Excerpt: Dead Girls (by (author) Nancy Lee)
At the edge of the parking lot, a group of skate kids sat huddled on a low railing, hunched over cigarettes, their feet on their boards. Scrawny junior–high boys with long hair and baggy jackets, drawn like insects to the glow of the gym. I loitered near the doorway, gripped the metal bars of the emergency doors, indecisive. The open night pushed gently at my back, reminded me of cool sheets and the limitlessness of sleep, while waves of indoor heat, heavy with cologne and sweat, rolled against my face. The bass beat of dance music shook the wood floor, made the painted red and blue lines jump like pick–up sticks. The walls were alive with swirling coloured lights. My equipment bag felt full of bowling balls and rocks.
The centre of the gym was a dense and elastic mass of moving bodies, each back flagged by a thick black number on white paper. Small groups of teens gathered around the perimeter, their frames slouched and curved into apathetic question marks. Girls and boys sipped water from an array of containers: sports bottles, spigotted strap–on reservoirs, spring water bottles, thrift store canteens. It was almost too much, the relentless beat of the music, the careful attention to water fashion. I had just finished another double shift at the hospital, my ears trained to the quiet moans and requests of patients, my eyes on the keys to the pharmacy cabinet.
Up in the bleachers, the supervisory fathers stuck out like a herd of buffalo, sturdy ungulates in cotton pants and expensive sweaters. They were gathered together, mouths yawned wide in over–enunciation, heads nodding slowly.
I spotted Janet barrelling down the bleachers. Tonight she wore a rippling silk creation, a tent of a thing, with flowing, trailing pieces, all in a kaleidoscope of blues and greens; around her neck, a massive garland of seashells. It was either the pills or the lights playing off her fabric, but she looked like a giant tidal pool moving across the room. She opened her arms and splashed against me. The seashells scratched my collarbone, dug into my chest. She wiggled my paper hat, “This is great!”
Janet took my hand and dragged me across the gym floor. The heels of my duty shoes stuttered along the wood as I tried to keep step. She hauled me up the bleachers and I watched my feet as they dipped in and out of the alternating slats in a haphazard pattern. I was sure I would fall, take a header into the bleachers and be the first to require medical attention. Things like that happened to me. Things that made my face burn red, my saliva taste like lighter fluid.
The parents stood as we approached. Janet introduced me as “Mary, the single nurse who lives next door.” The pills kicked in and for a second the world tilted away, the entire row of parents tipping back so that I overshot a handshake and poked a rotund father in the stomach. I apologized and said something about cholesterol; he flushed with embarrassment.
I said hello to a petite woman with short, black hair and Scottie dogs on her sweater and my peripheral vision flared, a huge spotlight turned on behind me, my throat pulsed. I talked myself through the usual fears, I will not have a heart attack, I will not stop breathing, any moment now this will feel good. And even as I said it, the high broke out across my body like a prickly white sweat. Everything around me looked suddenly brighter. I held it together, except for the sweating – I had no control over that. I shook hands with my arm pressed firmly to my side and silently cursed polyester.
I had struggled out of my unit scrubs and into the white tights and traditional white uniform in the front seat of my car. A conversation piece, an ice-breaker. The uniform was snug; I hadn’t worn it since the Halloween before nursing school, back when a stranger told me I looked good as a nurse, a compliment that led me to consider the profession. The costume included an old–fashioned paper hat and a “Florence Nightingale” name tag.
“Do you wear that to work?” the woman beside Janet asked, her finger waving in the air.
I shook my head.
I could tell the mothers hated the outfit. They gave me that disapproving mother look, the look that said, I was once spread–eagled in front of strangers with piss and blood and amniotic filth squirting out of my body, but this, this offends me. The fathers seemed somewhat more appreciative, though none of them appeared to be the skirt chasing, sports car driving type. These were men who had reached the fork of middle age and taken the high road. They were fact collecting types, men in comfortable sweaters and cushioned shoes whose lust for information, statistics, and useless trivia replaced a waning libido. These men were history buffs.
“Dead Girls is among the bravest fictional debuts in recent memory and heralds the arrival of a bold and audacious new voice in Canadian writing.”
–Quill and Quire
“These are moving and gripping stories – harsh, yet delivered with delicacy and compassion. They are from a young, new writer of conspicuous talent. Read them – and you will wake from a slumber you did not know you were in.”
–Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi
“Beautifully penned, intensely moving stories.… A masterwork of revelation and catharsis.…What a gift is Nancy Lee. No review can tell you.”
–Globe and Mail
“Dead Girls heralds the arrival of a bold and audacious new voice in Canadian writing…A disturbing, threatening, and ultimately thrilling debut.”
–Quill & Quire (starred review)
“Dead Girls has a can’t-put-it-down urgency. It’s about survival and toughness – and when you least expect it, hope.”
“These stories [have] a heart-stopping power.… Meticulously crafted, every element faceted and polished.…Dead Girls reveals Nancy Lee as a writer of uncanny abilities.”
“Lee has written a book that has an unforgettable sense of urgency. Remember the name.”
–NOW (five-star review)
“How tender, beautiful, tragic and soulful these stories are. Nancy Lee creates poignant moments of utter darkness and somehow, miraculously, she fills them with pinpricks of hopeful light. This book may teach you something about yourself and the way you move through the world. I couldn’t put it down.”
“Nancy Lee writes as a young writer should – fearlessly.…Dead Girls is a standout first collection.”
“Her writing flows so eloquently, you don’t fully appreciate its sting until the sentence is over. Dead Girls is a powerful book perfectly in step with its time.…”
“Vibrant, startling, and – contradicting the book’s title – electrically alive.”
–Victoria Times Colonist
“Dead Girls is a frighteningly accomplished book.”
“Lee is a pure and fearless writer.”