Linked short stories about families, nascent queers, and self-deluded utopians explore the moral ordinary strangeness in their characters’ overlapping lives.
A woman impersonates a nun online, with unexpected consequences. In a rapidly changing neighborhood, tensions escalate around two events planned for the same day. The barista girlfriend of a tech billionaire survives a zombie apocalypse only to face spending her life with the paranoid super-rich. From a university campus to an underground bunker, a commune in the woods to Toronto and back again, the linked stories in Householders move effortlessly between the commonplace and the fantastic. In deft and exacting narratives about difficult children and thorny friendships, hopeful revolutionaries and self-deluded utopians, nascent queers, sincere frauds, and families of all kinds, Kate Cayley mines the moral hazards inherent in the ways we try to save each other and ourselves.
About the author
Kate Cayley is a poet, playwright, and fiction writer living in Toronto. She is the author of one previous poetry collection (When This World Comes to an End, Brick Books), a young adult novel (The Hangman in the Mirror, Annick Press), and a short story collection (How You Were Born, Pedlar Press), which won the 2015 Trillium Book Award and was a finalist for the Governor-General's Award. She has been a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto since 2009, and has written two plays produced by Tarragon, After Akhmatova and The Bakelite Masterpiece.
Excerpt: Householders (by (author) Kate Cayley)
The netting that lined Miranda’s skirt bunched underneath the dark blue dress, sparked electricity from her thick white tights. A brooch, a circle of plastic pearls, fastened her white collar. The sleeves were too short, showing her wrists. She flicked her wrist and the cigarette spattered ash along the bodice. Her eyes were suspicious and crafty behind little glasses . She was seventeen and I was eighteen, standing together in my bedroom. I had a scholarship and so had a room to myself. It was a small liberal arts college that held on to antiquated distinctions, as mannered as Miranda’s aspirations to Victorian girlhood. She came to my room sometimes to smoke cigarettes. Everything in my room smelled like smoke. This was when you could still smoke in a university residence, if you kept the window open. “Have you accepted Christ?” Miranda asked. “Yes,” I said, and giggled. “Those who have accepted Christ will be lifted up.” She pulled hard on her cigarette, frowning in satisfaction at the thought of those others, who had not accepted Christ. She was the first person I had met (that I knew of) who believed in hell. I was studying Classics and English. The afterlife in my cosmology was twilight, the river Styx, philosophers and minor heroes wandering dark banks, forgetting. Hell was too literal, too sharp: nothing forgotten, nothing forgiven. I was the first queer she’d met (that she knew of, I added). We regarded each other with a small jolt of excited disgust. The smoke came out of her mouth in yellowish wisps. *** We met in the university chapel. She did not belong with or like the catty Anglican divinity students who made up the scant congregation and performed adjacent ceremonies (flower arranging for Easter, drinking sherry after the service, typing newsletters for the elderly minister, who held tightly to the railing when he walked down the chapel steps, his black robes rendering his heavy body sexless) that, like the university itself, had become self-conscious long before they were born. The young men wore vests and ties, the women long cotton or woolen skirts, their hair brusquely pulled back, striving for the haven of middle age, though their cheeks and foreheads were still pocked with acne. They carried baby fat and moved with adolescent angularity, standing on one foot, one hand over the other around the delicate stem of their sherry glass. She sat beside me in the pew. Her light brown hair was furred at the back of her head. Layers of sweater over an old t-shirt, the circle brooch I grew used to, old jeans. We were alone in the pew; everyone else had gone to take communion. Miranda did not take communion. I found out later that her congregation, in the small town in Maine she was from, was much more fire-and-brimstone. I’d never been inside a church before, except for my uncle’s wedding. Going to chapel was an aesthetic experiment, like reading Ovid and Plato and Auden. I loved the stained wood and the smell of the hymnbooks in the same way I loved old movies and vintage clothes and museums. The incense from the gold censer had nothing to do with God. It was a vision of beauty, the murky pendulum of the swinging world. I stuck out as much as she did in my maroon velvet jacket, black jeans tucked into combat boots, my head shaved so close my scalp shone blue. I painted my nails dark purple and wore a purple neck-kerchief. I was clownish and half knew it. I smiled and she smiled back, showing the tips of her little teeth. “Can I have one?” she asked, standing afterwards on the grass in front of the chapel steps. “How long have you been doing that?” I asked, watching her cup her hand unconvincingly around the cigarette as though it would go out. “Do you like the Iliad?” she replied. I’d taken the paperback out of my bag, hoping to look occupied in case no-one spoke to me. I said it wasn’t something you liked or disliked. She told me not to be rude. I hated being called rude, rudeness was for children, I was trying to be abrupt. I talked about the lists of names in the Iliad, and Simone Weil’s essay on The Iliad as a Poem of Force, which I had read but not understood, and whether Weil was anti-Semitic, and how she’d starved herself in solidarity with the French troops, because at that time her death interested me more than the deaths in Homer, even though they were the same: laudable, useless. Perhaps, when she died, she thought of those lists of names. Weil’s faith was something I wanted and wanted others to have. I venerated people who could not navigate the world. I didn’t want to fail, but I liked the idea of failures. They seemed to come closest to poetry. Miranda told me her name, I told her mine. She held her hand out. I was not used to shaking hands. Her nails were dirty. *** In my bedroom, she dropped her cigarette into the ashtray on the windowsill. Outside it was dusk. I was still giggling about accepting Christ. “Don’t make fun of me,” Miranda said. “I’m not making fun of you,” I said. She noticed the ash on her bodice and brushed at it, leaving a smear. “Oh, fuck” she said, enunciating a word she was trying to get used to. “Where are you going anyway, in that dress?” “The Christmas service, aren’t you coming?” “No,” I said. I’d stopped going to chapel weeks before, was beginning to make friends, had found a desk in the back row of my Iliad course on which someone had painstakingly carved we read to know we are not alone and decided I didn’t need the incense, I could find that feeling of significance elsewhere. “You should come,” she said stubbornly.
Praise for Householders
“A book that so assiduously interrogates notions of identity and belonging ... Cayley’s language is precise and evocative ... Each of the collection’s stories—from ‘Pilgrims,’ about a woman who impersonates a nun online to find sympathy for her difficult domestic situation, to the stunning opener, ‘The Crooked Man’—contains writing that impresses with its barbed acidity as much as its clear-eyed observation ... The lambent prose frequently belies the emotional heft of the stories, which creep up on a reader.”—Quill & Quire, starred review
“The stories in Householders are haunting and enigmatic, with a clarity of emotion that cuts through the dreamlike atmosphere Cayley has crafted ... With incredible attention to the nuance of interpersonal relationships—whether familial, romantic, situational, dysfunctional—each story in Householders is a window into an eerie but wonderful world.”—Fawn Parker, 49th Shelf
“You don’t have to come from a foreign country to be a stranger in your land. Cayley’s haunting short stories weave together stealthily, gentle until the cosh strikes your skull … Brutally, beautifully lyrical.”—Lavender Magazine
“Full of startling turns of phrase and evocative descriptions ... Cayley’s background as a poet—she has published two collections of poetry—shines ... With Householders, Cayley has envisioned a world that mirrors our own like a distorted funhouse—a place where the moral and physical stakes are heightened, where emotional bonds run deeply, and where something menacing is often lurking. It’s a frightening world, but it makes for a compelling story collection, as good to tear through for the narrative as it is to savor (and savor again) for the language.”—ZYZZYVA
“Literally took my breath away … Kate Cayley is splendid in her deft arrangement of the sentence, and in her depiction of the quotidian but just askew enough to be new and surprising. These stories are rich, absorbing, and oh so satisfying, and I predict this as one of the big books of the fall literary season.”—Kerry Clare, Pickle Me This
"Reading each story in Kate Cayley’s Householders is like entering a household, one that is unique in its treasured secrets and hidden corners of glory and shame. The inhabitants—a trio of aging hippies, a blogger masquerading as a nun, a group of traumatized escapees from a fanatical commune, a washed-up but still brilliant musician—are all seekers after whatever good life, or good death, they can find. Having met them, the reader is left with a lingering sense of responsibility, as for worrisome old friends who are loved in spite of themselves."—KD Miller, Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated author of Late Breaking
"Taut and brimming with clarity."—Souvankham Thammavongsa, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of How to Pronounce Knife
"Cayley’s world is a dangerous place, all the structures built with discarded slivering wood and rusted nails, but one where strange sacredness arrives in the middle of the ordinary day. The mysterious reasons that push her misplaced, displaced people are as convincing as memories, painful but necessary to relive. Read these stories, you’ll be glad you did."—Marina Endicott, author of The Difference
Praise for Kate Cayley
"Cayley illustrates our human desire for permanence, and the corresponding impermanence of the physical body. Other Houses weaves a rare complexity of contemplations through metaphor, shape-shifting, and philosophical considerations. Efficiently stated, Cayley’s ideas are wise and well worth a read."—Quill & Quire
"Though its narrative is simple, the play is eloquent, subtly shaped and offers a formidable confrontation between its two characters, a painter and an army officer."—NOW Magazine
"When This World Comes to an End marks a captivating poetic debut for the busy writer ... Despite its breadth of history, When This World Comes to an End offers a succinct reflection of what has been and what will be. The purview of history is considered through known figures just as much as the insignificant acts of the everyday."—Toronto Review of Books
"Cayley shows us, in How You Were Born, that the impulse to collect and then work through anxiety imaginatively is important and powerful."—Cleaver Magazine
"Reading each story in Kate Cayley’s Householders is like entering a household, one that is unique in its treasured secrets and hidden corners of glory and shame. The inhabitants—a trio of aging hippies, a blogger masquerading as a nun, a group of traumatized escapees from a fanatical commune, a washed-up but still brilliant musician—are all seekers after whatever good life, or good death, they can find. Having met them, the reader is left with a lingering sense of responsibility, as for worrisome old friends who are loved in spite of themselves."—K.D. Miller, Giller-nominated author of Late Breaking