Arts & Culture

‘Museum of Possibilities’ offers menagerie of witty, creepy short stories by Ottawa author

Ottawa writer Barbara Sibbald’s most recent book has been 25 years in the making.

Don’t panic. It’s not a volume on the scale of War and Peace; this is a book of delightful short stories, to be consumed in small, tasty bites.

The Museum of Possibilities took 25 years simply because that was when Sibbald wrote the first story in the collection. “Many were published in small literary magazines, but I had a lot of trouble finding a publisher for a collection back in the mid ’90s and so I gave up,” recalls Sibbald. “The market seemed to be for novels, so that’s what I did instead.” After two novels and an online novel published in this magazine, she came back to short fiction in 2013. Thank goodness she did.

The Museum of Possibilities, described by the publisher as “a collection of ‘shadow box’ narratives, depicts complicated relationships, strong emotions and hard consequences.” The 15 stories do all of that and more, demanding that you read one after another.

museum cover

Several allude to Sibbald’s award-winning background in medical journalism. She’s been a health journalist since 1992 — beginning as news editor at the Canadian Nurse Journal, then moving to the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) in 1998. While not a qualified doctor, she double majored in psychology and journalism and has taken the mini med course at the University of Ottawa. All of this gives her plenty of material for her fiction.

The second story in the collection, “Lucid Dreaming”, is drawn from an experience Sibbald had while in a sleep lab at Carleton University. “I got hooked up to a bunch of electrodes and slept in a sleep lab over night for a week.” She was participating in research studies: “The objective of the study was to shorten the time it took me to get to REM, so I learned a bit about the stages of sleep and whatnot,” she recalls. Sibbald uses this to good effect, switching between dreaming and reality, summoning anger and sorrow. It’s an intense ride.

If she had to choose a favourite child, Sibbald singles out the titular “Museum of Possibilities”, which opens the book. It’s one of her more recent stories and it will grab you by the throat. “It’s creepy and multilayered,” she says. It’s the story of an inspector sent to the house of a hoarder. He discovers that the floor-to-ceiling cardboard boxes are not a hoarder’s junk, but an artist’s work. Each one is filled with detailed, perfect dioramas of everyday life. “No one is exactly what they seem to be,” says Sibbald. “Isn’t that the way it is in life generally?”

Ottawa author Barbara Sibbald. Photo: Sean Sisk
Ottawa author Barbara Sibbald. Photo: Sean Sisk

One of the stories, “Bitter Butter”, is merely a snapshot at two and a half pages. But it’s laugh out loud funny, as is “Funeral Hats”, only slightly longer at three and a half pages. Both of these stories deal with the demise of husbands – through death, divorce or separation. They are not mourned, not missed and definitely not lost.

Sibbald’s stories are witty, clever, creepy and sometimes deeply emotional. The voices of her characters are strong, especially Wanda, a child of an air force family who appears in a series of linked stories in part three of the book. Sibbald nails an increasingly disaffected, strange young girl who becomes a stranger teenager.

Sibbald has plans for the future. Next, it’s a novel based on family history, which may turn out to be creative nonfiction instead. And she’s also planning to write on environmental issues. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 25 years.

The Museum of Possibilities by Barbara Sibbald is published by Porcupine’s Quill.