Figures of Faith

End Times

A review of End Times by Michelle Syba

Published on September 1, 2023

The power of faith is a curious thing. It can serve as a catalyst for courage and kindness just like it can be used to rationalize control and abuse. It can alter a believer’s sense of self much like it can encourage them to take on a challenge. Because once you begin to see yourself in a certain light, certain things suddenly seem possible.

In End Times, Michelle Syba’s début collection of stories centered around evangelical culture, characters frequently resort to extreme measures to get what they want. Whether they’re fundamentalists, atheists, or casual churchgoers, Syba’s protagonists cling to their personal beliefs and go to great lengths to defend them. The collection introduces individuals from all walks of life – teenage girls attending Bible camp, gay men navigating Toronto’s dating scene, an elderly immigrant battling a bad tooth infection – and exposes how all are driven by a desire to prove themselves right.

End Times
Michelle Syba

Freehand Books
$22.95
paper
256pp
9781990601286

At times, these stories read like character development exercises. Many of Syba’s protagonists are immigrants from the former Soviet Union struggling to fit into Canadian society. Their personas are so intertwined they sometimes feel interchangeable, like different reincarnations of one another. These reincarnations are even literalized at times, with characters appearing in more than one story. In “Fearfully and Wonderfully,” we meet Beth and Esther, two girls competing in their camp’s Bible-verse memorization contest. A dramatic incident at the end of their stay leaves the reader wondering if one of them has been harmed, providing an opportunity for Syba to re-introduce the girls as adults in the book’s final story, “For What Shall It Profit a Man?”

Beth and Esther are now in very different places. The former works as a consultant for a global management firm in Toronto and has left the fundamentalist Christian church she was raised in. The latter is a deeply religious stay-at-home mom to five children. She lives on a farm and sells her pottery to local shops. During the contest that takes place in the previous story, Beth recites Mark 8:36 “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” When she reunites with Esther all those years later, the verse rings truer than ever – driven by ego, Beth loses everything trying to help Esther’s daughter, Martha, end her pregnancy, something the adolescent is not even sure she wants for herself.

If God rewards prayer, Syba rewards reading strategies. The author is careful to reveal the women’s identities during their second coming, creating an opportunity for readers who have paid close attention to details in previous stories to recognize the heroines. They must wait, however, for the characters’ names to be divulged in order to truly make the connection, adding enjoyable suspense to an already tense narrative.

Though the stories in End Times follow similar patterns, they read like excerpts from different novels. The characters are fully fleshed, the settings come alive with vivid descriptions, and the narratives possess a sense of wholeness. The reader only spends a few pages with each of Syba’s protagonists, but it is clear they led full lives before their story began and that their lives will go on beyond their story’s conclusion. If at first a story seems enigmatic – we sometimes encounter a protagonist mid-journey – Syba has the ability to reveal its ethos using a single sentence. On a few occasions, however, that sentence only appears on a story’s final page. This strategy is used in “The Righteous Engulfed by His Love,” a piece about a doctor’s obsession with a pastor’s sexuality. Convinced that the minister is living a lie, the physician devises a plan to expose the truth. He ends up getting the answer he was looking for, but pride leads him to completely embarrass himself during the story’s final sentences, revealing his own insecurities in the process.

As a unit, the stories in End Times cover lots of ground. They take place all over Canada, between British Columbia and Ontario, and carry a universal quality that allows the reader to reflect on their own lived experiences. Syba’s profound empathy for her heroes somehow manages to legitimize their actions, inciting readers to root for them along the way, too. In the end, these characters all yearn for the same thing – to be understood – and Syba does a compelling job of being their messenger.mRb

Ariane Fournier is a journalism student based in Montreal.

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