From The Hart House Review, 2013 edition
“Writing is supposed to be the ultimate act of empathy, but its not. It’s a forgery; the ultimate act of a mooch,” says Maddie, a teenage character in “Dominoes”, one of the stories in Journey Prize winner Heather Birrell’s Mad Hope anthology. Unlike her character’s somewhat cynical interpretation, Birrell explains that empathy- the ability to walk the distance in a character’s shoes- is essential to the reading and writing process. In the case of Mad Hope, a collection of stories ten years in the making, this author is a master of both: able to summon the empathy that allows her to write such haunting portrayals of Toronto life, and able to provoke in her reader a genuine human response to her prose.
A University of Toronto OISE graduate and a Toronto native, the majority of Birrell’s stories are set in the city, and encompass an array of different characters from all walks of life. “I wrote about Toronto because it was a place I knew really well,” Birrell says. “I wanted to make the stories about real, contemporary people.” The city, far from being just the backdrop, becomes a major reoccurring character in Mad Hope. Birrell captures the essence of Toronto life wonderfully: how, inevitably, the mere fact of living in this colourful metropolis is the common tie that binds us all; how there is unity in the diversity of urban life. “Diverse. Which, as one might imagine, could mean many things”, the protagonist comments in “Frogs”, a story that examines the complex personal interconnections of circumstance, as a science teacher, in helping a female Muslim student through a difficult personal situation in a Toronto high school, is confronted with the role he played in the repressive Romanian Communist regime twenty years earlier. The frogs being dissected in his classroom become the stuff of life.
The motif of the frog (which occurs on the cover, at section breaks, in the epigraph, and finally a story) was intended as “a symbol of adaptability, but while being very sensitive. Frogs are endangered in some senses; they feel environmental changes. My characters are the same- trying to adapt to certain circumstances and struggling to survive”. Much like the frogs, the title Mad Hope was used because of its ambiguity. It may be, as with one character, simply an expression of hopeful enthusiasm. Perhaps characters are insane to hope; perhaps they are slightly mad themselves. “Hopefulness is undermined because of situations. Life can be difficult. Characters adapt to their situations against the odds”. With a sharp, rich style, Birrell emerges with her second collection as a matured writer, immensely capable of delivering stories about the small moments in life ripe with deeper, greater meaning. As a character comments in the story “My Friend Taisie”, “Just living … it can be an accomplishment, can’t it?”