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Hunger : stories

by Jane Eaton Hamilton

  Print book : Fiction

Painting the Baby's Room Green   (2019-05-16)


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"Painting the Baby’s Room Green

Hunger, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Oberon, 2002

The woman on the cover of this book is painted in vibrant tones of orange and red. Only one eye is visible, and it stares with an intensity that you feel might never quit. The other eye is obscured by her hands, clasped together in a vulnerable and disconcerting pose. And there, captured in the proverbial nutshell, are the stories contained in this excellent little collection. From the honesty, painfully contained and restrained, in “Accusation,” the opening story, where a woman tests the boundaires of her marriage when she draws her husband into her flirtation (read connection) with a younger man at work, to the closing story, from which the collection takes it title, where a manipulative lesbian lover physically and verbally intimidates her partner into staying with her, Jane Eaton Hamilton confronts the lies we may or may not choose to live with on a day-to-day basis.

Hunger is Hamilton’s fifth book, and the most assured foray to date into the genre by this multi-talented writer (she is a noted gardener and writer of poetry also). Her short stories have been nominated for numerous awards; they are included in anthologies; they have appeared in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Anthology, and in many literary journals, including The Fiddlehead. Hamilton has also been short-listed for the Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. Hunger was a finalist in the Publishing Triangle Awards NYC 2003.

The stories in Hunger are superbly character driven; the characters we encounter are not always lovable. At times demanding and selfish, they are searching for something more than what they have, and for that we find them interesting, perhaps even admirable. Hamilton’s wry observations on the human condition are poignant, and can be quite witty when they deal with those unfortunate lovers who are about to be dumped. In the darkly tragic, therefore slightly comedic (seemingly inseparable states), take “Goombay Smash,” one half of a lesbian partnership is desperately trying to keep the relationship together, and she takes both herself and her partner off to a gay resort. On the first morning, at breakfast, she is watching the other—apparently happy and contented—couples around her and tries to identify a common element in their seemingly successful relationships. She comes up with the wild notion that matching hairdos may be the answer to true coupledom bliss:

Maybe this is how American lesbians celebrate their anniversaries, you think. Never mind paper, silver, gold: American lesbians have hair anniversaries. If they make it two years, they part on the same side, five years and they spike, ten and they bob. Twenty and they both wear buns in snoods.

“Psst,” you say. “Marg, look over there.”
Marg says, “What, Joyce?”
You point out the women with the waterfall hair and try and explain about hair anniversaries, and how the two of you should get matching buzz cuts, but Marg just frowns and goes back to scraping out her grapefruit with a stumpy-handled spoon.

One of the most original stories is “Lifeboat” which, with complete clarity, catalogues the less than comforting reactions of a husband whose wife has lost a breast to cancer. She refuses to do anything cosmetic to disguise this fact, a situation he finds alternately selfish and frustrating, or gutsy and admirable. His life is significantly altered by his wife’s experience with the disease and the cancer machine of support groups, alternative therapies and the ubiquitous cancer convention. The author pulls no punches in her exploration of the husband’s character, yet we can feel sympathy for this man who cries What about me? The end holds a moment of redemption; anyone who has been there, cancer wise—done that, worn the t-shirt—with any member of her family, will certainly recognize it, and anyone lucky enough not to have been there will surely recognize and appreciate the sense of loss—acutely juxtaposed with the feeling of hope—for what might yet be salvaged.

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My particular favourite in this bunch of marvellous incursions into the depths and occasional heights of human experience is “Kiss Me or Something,” the story of a gay woman who falls for a straight woman, or, as I prefer to think of it, the story of a woman trying on different identities to see which one best fits her. Unfortunately, when people experiment with people, someone usually gets hurt along the way, and this story reveals just how deep that hurt can be. The betrayal of one woman is presented to the other as a gift, as something that will bring them both closer together. As the relationship heads toward disaster, it is painful to keep reading, yet read on we must, just as the two women must keep up the charade between them until the bitter end. We may wonder at the cruelty of one human being who willfully dupes another, and we further wonder at the capacity of human beings to dupe themselves:

How could I resist her? She kissed my cheek and my chin, small adorable kisses, and I folded my arms around her, pressed myself against her still taut stomach, groaned.

“Please,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

Now I knew who it was, I wanted Dorianna in a territorial way. I wanted to mark her, claim her, leave my scent on her. Drunk and confused and overcome by instinct, I felt like an animal. I pushed Dorianna down on her bed and made love to her like a beast, without taking off my clothes, lost in a haze of insane, itchy carnality.

An instinctive response to loss and betrayal, drawn with the kind of honesty that Hamilton is able to wield, her stories chronicle lives we may find uncomfortably familiar."

–Paula Thomas, Fiddlehead autumn 2003 No 217

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<a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="" target="_blank">Absinthe Review, Hunger</a>

Emma Donoghue, judge of the Ferro-Grumley Award: “Highly original, gripping, sharp and deepy moving”

“Most of the characters in “Hunger” – women and men, gay and straight – inhabit a world roiled by emotional turbulence. Love evades them; their relationships are disintegrating; partners betray them; their lives are defined mostly by loss, longing, confusion, uncertainty. In “Goombay Smash,” a Key West vacation meant to breathe new life into the dispirited domesticity of a lesbian couple instead disintegrates into days of wrong turns, crossed signals, long silences, and denied sex. In “Kiss Me or Something,” a lifelong lesbian disdains the cautionary fretting of friends, so sure is she that the once-straight woman who now proclaims a Sapphic love eternal will never leave her for a man. In this uniquely voiced collection, nothing about matters of the heart is easy, or obvious, or even settled. The magic of these 10 short stories, though, and of Canadian writer Jane Eaton Hamilton’s insightful, fluid – and often disarmingly witty – prose is that, in elegant, edgy fiction as in messy real life, sorrows of the soul are redeemed by a resilience of spirit.” —Richard Labonte

“Jane Eaton Hamilton is a superb writer. Those who know her deem her to be among the brightest lights on the Canadian literary landscape. Those who do not know this ought to read and judge for themselves. I wholeheartedly recommend her work.” –Joy Kogawa

“These stories will grab you by the throat and not let you go. Highly original, gripping, sharp and deeply moving, they deserve the prizes they have won, and those to come.” –Emma Donoghue

“Jane Eaton Hamilton is a fine and accomplished writer.” –Carol Shields

“Hamilton explores themes of longing and loss in the lives of lesbians, heterosexual men and women. …marvelously quirky. Hamilton successfully weaves humour with pathos in the lean, accomplished style reminiscent of short stories in the New Yorker.” —Nairne Holtz , University of Western Ontario



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"I have saved the best for last. The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in his poem “Ars Poetica” writes that “The purpose of poetry is to remind u/how difficult it is to remain just one person..” This is a truth at the heart of Jane Eaton Hamiltons superb collection Hunger . There is not much happiness or contentment in these stories: Hamilton’s characters are just trying to hang onto the things that give their lives coherence. More often than not, what gives them coherence are the people whom they love but so often feel (rightly as it turns out) that they are losing. Oddly enough, despite this potential for sadness, the tone of the stories is often amusing and curious, and Hamilton gives the reader just about every variation on relationships. Hunger is a vibrant and varied collection.

Hamilton is especially good at capturing relationships that are wearing out. In “Kiss Me or Something,” the narrator Liz her lover Dorianna is pregnant. Dorianna is elated but seems unable to appreciate Liz’s perplexity: Liz did not know that Dorianna was trying to get pregnant, and what most rankles Liz is that her formerly heterosexual partner has once again slept with a man. This knowledge eats away at her, and soon her fears are confirmed: Dorianna leaves Liz for the man and, once again, seems incapable of understanding the hurt that she has caused Liz. The only solution that the laconic Liz can come up with to stabilize herself is to paint Dorianna out of her life. With a paintbrush she attacks the prospective baby’s room they were painting when Dorianna finally revealed she was leaving:

“At the first paint store I came to, I picked rust, a colour I was lukewarm about but that I knew Dorianna hated. I went home and put on Dorianna’s clothes, which were huge around my waist and too short on my arms and legs, and started painting the room, inch by inch. The light was dimming by the time I finished covering the green. I was tired but satisfied. For a minute, I stood at the window looking the waning sunset and the sparkle of city lights, and at the mountains in the distance.”

Hamilton is good at giving a sense of the puzzle that is the other person, the beloved, and this is nicely reflected in the stories’ unpredictability. In “Accusation” a husband comes to the shattering conclusion that his wife is having an affair with a young man who works for her. For the husband it seems the marriage is over, yet when the final confrontation comes, it turns out she is not having an affair and that she loves her husband, although, as she notes “sometimes I can’t stand you.” She adds, “What I want, Rob, is not to be us, the couple we are. I just want something to happen. Something has to change here. I’m nearly 40 years old, Rob, and every day is a day we planned and it goes along like we planned. The kids go off to school. You write. I cook linguini with primavera sauce. Doesn’t that ever bother you?”

Hamilton’s characters have a likeable perplexity about them, and this is something she captures well, whether the character is male or female, gay or straight. A young father feels, in the months after their child is born, that his wife hates him and, worse, that he does not love his child. A father is repulsed by his daughter’s relationship with a man his age, especially given the daughter’s tendency to talk graphically about their problematic sex life.

Hamilton’s characters always seem to be watching their lives fall apart. When a character believes she has found what her heart has always desired, the reader can bet she is in for an unpleasant surprise. Alternatively, those on the edge of disaster often find

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their situation getting better. The complexity of the human heart is a the core of these fine, fully realized stories."

Tim McNamara, Event Vol 32

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