L297, the debut short story collection by Yellowknifer Joseph LaBine, centres the fractured lives of eight memorable characters and the odd, hopeful habits they develop.

Strange and dreamy (in, it must be noted, in the most anxiety-inducing way possible), this short story collection is, in a word, poetic. Let me explain: While some stories keep readers at an arm’s length away, emphasising a big picture or an overarching narrative, L297 thrives in inviting its readers to look closely. While this short story collection is expansive — reaching across time and travelling between Ireland, the United States, and Canada — it is simultaneously intensely focused on the everyday experiences of each mysterious character as their eyes are turned into windows through which we are invited to peer into the story.

Could I tell you what any one short story in this collection was about? No! Instead, the ways in which LaBine uses writing to craft a feeling, a moment, or a snapshot of a life makes each story memorable in and of itself. Told in second person, a style of writing also used by authors such as Erin Morgenstern who penned The Night Circus, L297’s narratives are ones that invite their readers to come closer and closer, to experience each moment as if it were passing in their own life. This proximity is compelling, giving each line a sense of urgency and making L297 hard to put down.

As each subsequent story unfolds like a fever dream, LaBine begins to craft an archive of the ways in which people’s vastly different lives can intersect or fracture apart. With a poetic tendency towards repetition, frequent paragraph breaks, and bold imagery, LaBine’s book almost feels like it ought to be read aloud like the slam poetry of other Yellowknifers, such as Shane Koyczan. Whether read in isolation or shared, however, this debut novella is sure to stick with you long after it leaves your hands.

Deeply immersive, every aspect of L297 feels intentional. For example, the first lines of its centrefold short story “V” are “Start in the middle. Start anywhere”; not only is “V” itself smack dab in the middle of this short story collection, making the line itself funny within the context of this book, it also speaks to the ways in which L297 is inviting by nature. It feels as if you could, indeed, start anywhere.

As I mentioned in my review of Towards a Prairie Atonement by Trevor Herriot, some books are intentionally beautiful, designed to be held and read, and this is one of them.

Compelling from its geometric cover design (credit to the Irish animator Christian Keogh) to its playful and poetic use of language, LaBine’s debut short story collection distinguishes him among Yellowknife’s vast talent pool as an innovative new author on the scene.

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