Small Gaming Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club opens with the words, "This might hurt a little." This is the essence of Newfoundland author and playwright Megan Gail Coles's debut novel: Finding small seedlings of courage from the cracks of brokenness and hurt.
The story begins with one of novel’s female protagonists, Olive, watching her fellow townsfolk from afar. They are caught up in the moment of their evening’s partying and pub crawls, an escape from the dreary problems that befall them in St. John's, Newfoundland. This opening scene sets the stage for what is to come, an exploration of the shattered lives and broken systems that make up the story's landscape.
One by one, the novel's main characters are introduced in an interwoven plot: Olive; a young woman seeking to escape the trauma of her past; Iris, looking for meaning and love outside of her life’s current offerings and its past hurts; predatory John, a local head chef at hipster bistro The Hazel, Iris’s affections; Georgina, John’s vain wife and owner of The Hazel, caught up in real estate battle for wealth and prestige in town; Damien, a young man struggling to overcome his addiction, find his moral compass, and escape decades of homophobia; and Calv, a young man seeking manhood in a climate of power and aggression.
Eventually the main characters find themselves trapped together in a storm at The Hazel, where the plot's escalating pains and grievances reach a boiling point. A storm brews outside, effectively shutting in all customers and employees at the Hazel. We witness our main characters, each connected by a few degrees of separation come together as they each harbour secret resentments. One by one these tensions, including an extramarital affair and a downward spiral of addiction, rise to the surface, culminating in an emotional battle.
But not before we get an illuminating take on each character and the unique and often harrowing paths that have led them to this juncture. We are witness to the individual decisions and motivations of each character, as well as a tightly woven background of poverty, gender-based violence, colonization, addiction, and historical trauma. Our characters are on their own paths, but one molded by larger forces. This systemic approach is best demonstrated near the end of the novel, when we see a flashback from Olive’s past in foster care. The adults who care for her are dumbfounded by Olive's seeming inability to adapt to each new school and home:
"Her silence bothered them. They knew nothing of the hurt in having a crippled tongue. Olive's tongue had been hobbled generations ago. So it doesn't matter if men yell at Olive anymore…Olive has been made ready for them all. Every reaching, grasping, clawing embrace has prepared her for the moment she opens the truck door and climbs in…"
The novel’s most vital -- and devastating -- theme is its treatment of violence and sexual assault. It has a unique take on the current #MeToo movement, given its raw and rural setting, where the interlocking barriers that prevent marginalized women from coming forward are often magnified.
In the aftermath of a brutal sexual assault in the novel, we watch as the victim goes through the motions in her mind, detailing what the aftermath would be if she were to come forward. The way mothers would do anything to protect their sons, how her whole life would be charted up on display, and how, when it came down to it, people would protect the integrity of these "good men" of town, over the poor woman who would be made to appear lying. As women always are.
And this theme is titular in nature, as we see the roles of predator and victim -- "small game hunting" -- unfold in the story’s final pages, as tensions arise and power dynamics come to the surface, doing what it is they tend to do: protect the most privileged at the expense of the most vulnerable. The final scenes demonstrate how a woman’s name will be dragged through the mud at any cost to protect the positions of men in power.
Although Small Game Hunting is often tragic and heartbreaking, its finale offers a glimmer of hope that we are invited to be brave and wait for. The hope that sees women, both tattered and changed by the work of male violence and power, not at a loss for agency or warmth.
In the end, Coles's powerful novel is a tale of resilience.
Tania Ehret has been involved in various community development/organizing endeavours around Vancouver and is currently rabble's Operations Coordinator.
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