Book Review: The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life by Sean McCallum


In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein’s Creature declares, “Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.” McCallum’s The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life is in many ways a defence of the human experience, the celebration of life, in all its beauty and anguish. As we journey with the main characters, from Peruvian dusty roads to Canadian city streets, it is clear how dear life is within McCallum’s world.

From the outset the reader can taste the despair of Rosy, the story’s main character. McCallum’s gift for writing ensures that we are each sitting alone with Rosy in the back of a black-market gentlemen's club in Iquitos, Peru, the smell of warm beer and regret spilling out on the pages. The claustrophobia of the club follows Rosy out into the heat, sweat, drink, and dust of the street that McCallum uses like oil paint on a canvas to build his world.

Recalcitrant flashes between the past and present, offering glimpses into the various lives of the main characters', and into Rosy’s life and pain, a pain that has led him into the heart of Peru, a man running from mistakes and tragedy. McCallum understands how to write the heart of humanity, how we bleed wonder and wretchedness in equal measure. Despite Rosy’s suffering, there is a quiet hope that pervades Recalcitrant’s pages, touching the characters, their lives and stories.

Rosy’s two best friends, Ishy and The Deuce, have not given up on him, and, despite the reality of their own struggles and hidden suffering, set out to find him. There is a lightness and humour to this pairing that paradoxically serves as a deep reminder of the importance of friendships. They are vital characters within the story, two people who one can’t help but develop a deep affection for. Such is the way McCallum writes about the human experience, we know something more dwells beneath the surface of these two, ready to be exposed, the shape of personality defined by achievements and failure.

“It’s funny,” Rosy tells Vanessa one night, “because I’ve always romanticized the idea of disappearing without a trace. But now you’ve got me thinking that no matter where I go, the traces are always there.” This is the heart of Recalcitrant’s story, that the imprints and consequences of our actions—of our lives—leave a trace, a residue, that can never be erased. This is the beauty of McCallum’s writing; he is not interested in the shallow asininity that can plague mainstream stories. The world he invites the reader into could easily be ours, without the filter, layers of respectability peeled back revealing the truth of who we are, and the scars that trace their way across our stories.

“The things we love when we’re 16, they stay with us forever. They’re the things we think about late at night, the things we don’t dare speak to anyone. It’s sad and beautiful . . .” Linda says to Rosy and his friends. Closing the final page to The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life, the reader is left with a beautiful sadness, reminded of humanity’s complexity, the love we share, and the wounds we carry. Stunning.


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