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Bleak beauty

This is one of the finest pieces of debut fiction I've encountered in the last few years, and with it DW Wilson takes his place with other North American writers such as David Vann and Daniel Woodrell in eking out savage grace and empathy through muscular prose and the desperate circumstances of his characters.

Once You Break A Knuckle is a collection of 12 interconnected short stories set in or around Invermere, a small town in the remote Kootenay Valley in Western Canada. All of the stories deal with the machismo ever present in such communities, but they do so in a beautifully rounded, three-dimensional way. There are no good guys or bad guys within these pages, just ordinary people struggling to make it through a hardscrabble existence with some kind of dignity intact.

Several of the stories revolve around the same small collection of characters, the focal point being the difficult and combative father-son relationship between John and Will Crease. John is an RCMP officer (a "mountie", but that phrase is never used here), as hard as nails but a bit long in the tooth, while his son is a feisty, stubborn teenager torn between following in his father's footsteps and breaking out of smalltown life to become a writer.

The scenes between the Creases are electrifying, from the moment in the opening story, The Elasticity Of Bone, where Will fixes a judo tournament so that he can fight his old man, to the unbearable impromptu tug-of-war between them in the final eponymous story.

Wilson is fantastic at that old creative writing adage of "show, don't tell", managing to speak volumes for the state of mind of his characters simply by the way they handle a tool belt, slug a beer or slip their truck into gear.

Another father-son relationship is at the fulcrum of this collection's centrepiece story, Valley Echo, which takes its time to delve into the troubled psyche of dad Connor and son Winch, as the two grapple with personal loss and the ghosts that inevitably haunt everyone in an enclosed community where precious few ever leave.

Elsewhere, camaraderie between friends comes under intense pressure in stories like Don't Touch The Ground and The Dead Roads, the latter of which won last year's prestigious BBC National Short Story Award.

Throughout this collection, Wilson's prose is whittled down to the bone yet still carries an intense, visceral power. The economy and precision of his language will be the envy of many more experienced writers, and there is real literary skill on show here, Wilson imbuing his tales with a fist-clenching lyricism and a deeply felt pathos. At times, the emotional tension and downtrodden bleakness are almost overpowering, but Wilson always somehow manages to temper these with a little hope, a little humanity, a little dignity.

This is a really exceptional debut, and an emphatic calling card from a genuine talent. I can't wait to read what he writes next.

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