Barbara Black's genre-bending debut short story collection Music from a Strange Planet (Caitlin $22.95) is concerned with issues of identity and emotional attachment and its characters are often at their most vulnerable. An awkward child envisions herself as a beetle; an unemployed business analyst prefers water-walking over "rebranding" himself; and a biogenetically-altered couple in a squatters' district visit an attic to observe a large cocoon. Ranging from subversive to comic, and humane to outlandish, Black's fiction contemplates a strange world.

In addition to fiction Black writes flash fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in Canadian and international magazines including The Cincinnati Review, The New Quarterly, CV2, Geist and Prairie Fire. She was a finalist in the 2020 National Magazine Awards, nominated for the 2019 Writers' Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and won the 2019 Geist Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. She lives in Victoria.

PHOTO by Erin Clayton


Music from a Strange Planet: Stories (Caitlin, 2021) $22.95 9781773860589

[BCBW 2021]

Music from a Strange Planet by Barbara Black
(Caitlin $22.95)

Review by Caroline Woodward

A masked woman is caught in the headlights. Her streaked red hair is flying, her deer ears and antlers are alert and her mottled wispy coat seems to catch her in the act of transforming from human to animal or insect…or perhaps it’s the other way around. A clock on the wall suggests a Cinderella-like deadline is imminent.

The cover art on Music From a Strange Planet, Barbara Black’s debut collection of twenty-four short stories—a collage she created herself—abounds with imagery and clues that recall the brilliant epigraph by Anton Chekhov: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Some of these stories have been previously published in Canadian and American literary magazines like Geist and The New Quarterly. They have also been nominated for National Magazine Awards, the Journey Prize, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and won the Writers’ Union of Canada Short Prose Competition. Clearly, Barbara Black is a writer to read and furthermore, the back cover is replete with kudos from three established masters of the short fiction form: John Gould, Cathleen With and M.A.C. Farrant.

In much the same way many of us marvel at the ability of musicians to create something fresh and new with notes and rhythms and sounds, I appreciate and admire writers who conjure up and harness a soaring imagination with linguistic dexterity. Black does this while seamlessly meshing her intellectual curiosity with a resonant emotional plumb line. What a treat it is to read her inventive, sometimes sad, and often funny stories.

A “regular good guy” ends up in a coma and escapes to the wondrous insect world of his Grade 7 science project. A retired acrobat encounters a retired dentist, both lonely insomniacs. One little girl rejects all that is fluffy, pink and pretty and drags her perfectionist traditional mother and playful papa into seeing another world of colours, textures and behaviours.

Insects inhabit many of these stories, a fascinating fusion of science and imagination bringing to mind Franz Kafka’s classic Metamorphosis in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a huge insect. In Black’s story, a man named Bert turns into a bug and eagerly flies off to his liberation from a body trapped in a coma, thinking: “What did it matter? Only the law of dreams applied.”

The seared memories of childhood are especially poignant in stories like Hot July Day where a Grade 5 bully and her accomplice fail to repress the resilience of an undersized, long-suffering classmate. Then we are whisked away to the Bulkley/Nechako region of northwest B.C. where a solitary man, a taxidermist, forms a protective bond with a porcupine he calls Lydia. The trees in his valley are succumbing to a pine beetle infestation and the threat of fire in mid-summer is high.

Belly-Deep in White Clover is a soulful story about life and death in the wilderness which was first published in Prairie Fire and then long-listed for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. It demonstrates yet again Black’s range of subject and setting, and her mastery of tone, or to use the musical equivalent, pitch, which is never flat or sharp, but bang on.

Perfectly attuned to both the wild and the domestic is the story, Ghosts on Pale Stalks where nature on the West Coast is evoked in all its damp and fecund abundance. A single middle-aged woman is carrying an urn, at the urging of her somewhat exasperated friends, through the rainforest and to the ocean’s edge. Easier by far for others to tell us to “just let go” than it is to discard the physical and emotional burdens we’ve carried for decades. Or, before finally giving up on advice from Oprah and sifting through whatever insights tarot cards seem to offer, by taking decisive action to save our own sanity.

There is seemingly no limit to the inventive breadth and depth of the worlds Black conjures, with writing precisely embedded in each setting. The title story exemplifies her mastery of structure and dialogue and what I call the alchemy of creating fiction. In Music from a Strange Planet we meet Lucky Bee, who experiences prescient abilities for impending good news and bad, as well as the kind of synaesthesia that merges colour with sound. For example, magenta becomes F major while viridian is heard as B minor. Lucky Bee’s companion is a cricket.

Prepare to be transported to cities, to other countries, to a crumbling present and then off to a Centre for Biogenetics on an unnamed planet in the future. Other worlds unfold like wings in this marvellous book and beguile us. Reader, prepare to be enchanted.

Caroline Woodward is the author of nine books in five genres for adults and children. She lives and writes from somewhere on the road in a mighty BigFoot motorhome.

BCBW 2021