A look into a world we had hoped to ignore 

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Dead Girls

McClelland and Stewart,

286 pages, $22.99

Reviewed by Brandi Higgins

You know these people. You don’t want to think you do, but you do. Try ignoring them, maybe they will go away. If you do know them, you don’t want to know this much about them. Or the city they live in. It’s not the city you know. The city you know is rain-cleaned, with cherry blossoms in the spring, fire works in the summer and Christmas lights in the harbour come winter. So why then, when you read the eight stories that make up Nancy Lee’s debut collection, Dead Girls, do you know exactly who and where she is talking about?

The condo in the suburbs where kids drink warm beer and sell each other, the tattoo parlour on your way out of town, the glassed in apartment of a computer salesman. You have been there, you have seen that. The librarian with the AP photojournalist boyfriend and the S&M bent, the mother raging against losing her children in a divorce and the dying father and his daughter trying to patch up their relationship before it’s too late. People you have run into, made casual conversation with, but don’t really want to know. What is it that binds these stories together? The disparate, desperate lives of the middle class? Dead Girls. In each story Lee makes reference to Vancouver’s missing or murdered Downtown Eastside women that we, like some of Lee’s characters, have been too wrapped up in our own lives to see or care about. We have been denying, hiding from, ignoring these disposable women whose pictures on the news mean little to us, and we want to keep it that way. But Lee won’t let us. She brings us into a world of desperate missing and hoping. Never knowing. And it is through these stories that we begin to see what we hoped would go away.

The murders of these women, their bodies discovered in reality at the same time as Lee’s book was launched, is something so grizzly that we can’t acknowledge it or be near it. Yet Lee’s stories touch us, bring us into a world we try and dismiss. With tastes and touches and the smells of tobacco and sweat in our nostrils, we can no longer be bystanders simply reading the stories. Instead, we are brought closer to each life until we are living with the characters. We are taken with the distraught mother in the title story who is obsessed with the investigation of the dead girls; who witnesses her daughter in the act of prostitution and feels relief that at least her daughter is alive. In a later story we feel the pain and guilt of the young girl who is searching for a sister we know will not be found.

With startling ease Lee has made you care. Her prose, tight and clean, gritty and true, her use of second person narrative and her ability to evoke a strong sense of place has grabbed you and won’t let you go. It is no wonder that the Globe and Mail hailed Lee as one of the Top Ten young Canadian writers. Watch her. And while you’re at it — watch the clock. You might just get so involved in these lives that you forget about your own for a little while – and you don’t want to be too late.

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