Fiction contest judge, Shashi Bhat's editorial on Elise Thorburn's winning story Rubens' Salmon:
Rubens' Salmon caught my attention with its patient, carefully observed details. It’s the kind of prose that makes cutting open a fish beautiful, by comparing the roe found inside to glittering costume jewelry. The piece reads like memoir, with a fully characterized narrator who meditates on her past and its unexpected connections to her present. Moving through the different times and settings of the narrator’s life, and the worlds of nature and art school, it explores themes of mortality, the power of art, and the haunting grief felt after the loss of her parents.
I was charmed by the writer’s way of attributing human qualities to animals, inanimate objects, and emotions. There’s an early image of bears running away with “their large rumps waggling like the rumps of ladies in flowery dresses at garden parties.” Later, a boat used for gripping and moving logs is described as having teeth. The narrator, catching salmon with her father, searches the eyes of fish for signs of fear, and strokes a fish’s side, “hoping it would know it was not alone.” Grief is personified, lyrically described as a perpetual follower and visitor: “We’d run away from the cold chill of sadness, trying to escape our grief, but grief always caught up to us anyway…it knocked on our door, came in, took a seat at the table and filled all our spaces with its bleak frost.” In effect, everything — alive or not — is treated with humanity.
This is a quiet, subtle piece, with a surprising kind of violence in its ending. It was clear from the first few paragraphs that this story would stand out.