Review: This Unlikely Soil by Andrea Routley

Thanks to Caitlin Press and the author for providing an advanced reader's copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review. 


Reading this loosely-linked quintet of novellas chronicling the lives of five queer women on the wild West Coast of British Columbia was a discovery. It felt like I was digging my metaphorical hands into the fecund soil of author Andrea Routley’s impressive literary imagination. What the reader discovers in that soil is often unpleasant, sometimes hopeful, but always revealing.

The first story, Appropriate Behaviour, begins with one of the best opening sentences I’ve read for a while.
“Freddie moved to the Coast not long after the Great Leap, as she called it. She’d jumped from her sixth-floor balcony and miraculously survived the fall with only rib fractures and a head injury, causing relatively minor cognitive impairments.”
Freddie’s traumatic brain injury is not, as we are led to believe from the first paragraph, minor. She is a wonderful, engaging character on the page but she introduces us to what will be an ongoing theme of this collection: miscommunication. Freddie struggles with inappropriate behaviour and frequent social miscues because of her head injury. In this story, miscommunication and failure to connect with others is concrete; it is organic.

In two stories, Damage and Midden, Routley shows us different forms of miscommunication. In the linked tales, Rita and Naomi orbit each other but can never connect. Rita sees herself as animalistic: one to be mounted, to be possessed. She's searching for autonomy but she cannot find it; Naomi certainly isn’t going to give it to her. She keeps reaching out to Naomi for connection, but is beset by constant feelings of inadequacy. She’s left grasping for love in a relationship that is already dead.

Naomi eats up her exes like she’s sucking the tender meat from an oyster shell, tossing the remains behind her in a figurative midden of discarded relationships. She’s feeding her narcissism, but she’s just as lost to connection as everyone else. Naomi reflects, “Middens are, in fact, stories of what it means to be alive–accumulation, damage, permanence, impermanence, waste.” Rita and Naomi’s need for connection is not going to grow here.

I found some episodes of genuine connection in the collection. Miriam, in the coming-out story Guided Walk, cannot articulate her needs to anyone around her even while she aches with longing for a new woman in her life. She finds an almost magical-realist connection in nature. She dreams of a fierce female bear, and the bear dreams of her. A real life encounter gives her the courage to speak out, and she makes a tentative connection. Here, there is hope for change.

Miscommunication, communication, connection and change. This is what I thought about as I read these stories. I sometimes felt sympathetic to the characters, sometimes frustrated. I suspect this is Routley’s intention. What becomes clear is that compassion is crucial when we are shown the suffering of others. We all seek connection but sometimes we’re unable to grasp it because of our protective armour, and our conditioning. Perhaps the task is to approach even clumsy attempts to connect with patience and gentleness in ourselves, and others.

The collection ends with Elena, attempting to homestead in her coastal community. The eddies of past, short relationships behind her, she now finds connection to the land, the soil, and the compost she nurtures. She is sympathetic and straightforward, even in her tentative shepherding of the land. She’s not unscathed, but she’s hopeful.
“She’ll have to rebuild the raised beds, reseed the lawn. She’s so tired of starting over again and again and again. Only the compost heap is undisturbed. She jabs the pitchfork into the pile and turns the soil. Something has changed–the chemistry has shifted, and dozens and dozens of worms have somehow found their way here, tunnelling in the darkness, consuming the walls, revelling in the decay.

That’s a good sign, Elena thinks. Something will grow in this.”