The Beggar's Garden by Michael Christie book reviewI first learned about Michael Christie’s book, The Beggar’s Garden, at the inaugural Incite reading series programmed by the Vancouver Writer’s Festival and hosted by the Vancouver Public Library. Michael read an excerpt from the first short story in his collection, The Beggar’s Garden. It had gone on sale that day and was being sold at the event, so I picked up a copy.

This memorable collection of nine linked stories follows a diverse group of curiously interrelated characters—from bank manager to crackhead to retired Samaritan to mental patient to web designer to car thief—as they drift through each other’s lives like ghosts in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside (DTES).

These darkly comic and intoxicating stories, gleefully free of moral judgment, are about people searching in the jagged margins of life—for homes, drugs, love, forgiveness. They range from the tragically funny opening story “Emergency Contact” to the audacious, drug-fuelled rush of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” to the deranged and thrilling extreme of “King Me.”

The Beggar’s Garden, composed of nine short stories, deals with the characters and issues in a very non-judgmental way. Without being cold, the DTES is just what it is: a place in the city where these characters happen to live/work/pass through. Everyone has a story to tell, and Christie—who worked in a homeless shelter in the DTES and provided outreach to the severely mentally ill—has created nine fictional yet truthful and realistic stories.

My favourite two stories were “Emergency Contact” and the title story, “The Beggar’s Garden”. In my opinion, it was these two stories that cast aside the assumptions the most.

The homeless man in “The Beggar’s Garden” is not a drug addict or an alcoholic. He is simply a man who has been down on his luck his whole life and has no means to scrape by.

The thing that drew me to “Emergency Contact” is the honest, unassuming way that Michael Christie wrote in first person of a mentally unstable woman. The writing is brilliant, strong, and humorous—but not derogatory. Christie writes straightforwardly about the characters conditions, and some stories don’t even deal with someone directly linked to the DTES, but someone they know or love.

Here is a funny, no-nonsense snippet from the story “King Me”. Saul is a patient in a mental institution and has not been taking his medication for a couple days:

“Feel like checkers, Saul?” she said, glancing with apparent awe at his Intuitional Headwrap. He considered describing to her how the Wrap amplified his thinking, but doing so would force him to use upside-down words so he was silent. He’d so far avoided inflicting the infinite wattage of his brain on Kim and those sixty-four squares, fearing that a defeat as crushing as he’d administer could be ruinous to her already fragile mental constitution.

My one disappointment was the interconnection between characters. I’ve mentioned a couple times before how I enjoy when short stories connect in subtle ways and with seemingly unimportant details. While there were a couple instances I caught, on the whole the thing that binds these stories is the location: Vancouver’s DTES.

Michael Christie deals with issues and people connected to the DTES. His writing is strong, original, and easy to read. I found The Beggar’s Garden enjoyable and several of the stories left me wanting to know more about the characters and their stories. I look forward to watching Christie’s writing career.