Vancouver writer Kelli Deeth has a peculiar way with words. Like a sadistic matchmater, she couples them in odd little combinations that are often so energetic that they set the tamest of passages ablaze. In The Girl Without Anyone, Deeth's assured first book, she assiduously arranges words into compact clusters that brim with vim and honesty. On the book's first page, Deeth showcases her ability to express clunky, difficult moments with economy and wit. Leah, the book's protagonist, is stuck in a Niagara Falls hotel room watching her father, a subway conductor, snuggle with Selena, his 27 year-old girlfriend. With the following snippet of dialogue¨"'Big baby,' she said.'You're the big baby,' my father said"¨Deeth cracks the nut of Leah's father's relationship and her own discomfort about it. In the same vein, Deeth wraps her arms around overwhelming emotions and conveys them with a pinch of words throughout the book's remaining 165 pages.
In this collection, the eleven interwoven short stories of The Girl Without Anyone are told from Leah's perspective. When we first meet Leah she is a melancholic eighth grader whose parents have recently spilt up. She lives with her mother in West Hill, a working class Toronto suburb that is typified by fish'n chips stands, IGAs, and basement band practices.
Leah is older in each story, and reaches 19 by the collection's final piece. In between, Leah grapples to make sense of things, to escape herself, and to be loved. Her remains resolute in dumpy mood: she is without hope and disconnected from those around her, inspired to press on and forge ahead only by her fantasies about being somebody else. What The Girl Without Anyone lacks in plot is compensated for by its masterful recital of a low emotional tone. Deeth captures Leah's dispiritedness with spare, beautiful language whose sounds needs to be read slowly and allowed to make their way around the reader's mind.
The psychological aspects of Deeth's writing style could best be likened to Mary Gaitskill's. Deeth's plotlines, however, aren't even one tenth as perverse and seamy as the interactions in Gaitskill's tales. In "White Carpet," one of the book's strongest and most heartbreaking stories, Leah and her best friend Loretta decide they must attend a party. A promiscous girl in Leah's biology class informs them of an upcoming fete.
"Her name was Ivonne, an unattractive name that better suited an older woman, a woman with a car and a trench coat and a briefcase," Deeth writes. At the party, Leah learns that there are plans to beat up Ivonne, but she does nothing to prevent it. Leah watched as a man "threw snow on Ivonne's face one more time.... Ivonne lay in the snow, her arms at her sides. She did not turn her head to us; perhaps, out of some instinct, she was playing dead; the mortification might have been less if she never saw our eyes and we did not see hers." This kind of insight is characteristic of Leah; it is so plain and devoid of emotion that it feels alien. The entire book consists of Leah's unimpressed, morbid musings.
Because of this the book can feel monotone; rarely does Leah's mood jets up from its dark and somber state. But even when Leah looks up and sees a sky the colour of asphalt that is about to crack into a million pieces, Deeth's strong and unpredictable prose still has a happy life of its own. ˛