My Book Reviews

Summer 2022

The Beautiful Place
by Lee Gowan

Saskatoon: Thistledown, 2021

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Malahat Review*

“We tell stories to make ourselves and our place in the world real, ”Lee Gowan said in a 2021 interview with The Miramichi Reader. The people and stories in The Beautiful Place feel very real throughout the
challenging plot elements of three generations of family dysfunction, two failed marriages, a suicide pact, and a remote airport hangar that provides temporary housing for the frozen bodies of humans who’ve
opted for cryonics and are stored in The Beautiful Place while awaiting a time when medical science will have advanced so that their diseases can be cured.

Students of Canadian literature will recognize some of the characters and territory from Sinclair Ross’s celebrated 1941 novel, As for Me and My House. Gowan, like Ross, grew up on a prairie farm and is well able to describe the bleak landscape that might cause a young man to leave home. There are similarities in the form of these two accounts; both are told by a single narrator through dated diary entries within which Philip Bentley appears as a major character. However, the tone, texture, pace, and action of the two novels are very different. The strength of Ross’s novel lies in its quiet, monotonous, repressed repetition of events in a very small Saskatchewan town over one year, while Gowan’s story moves back and forth over a quarter-century during which his characters race to and fro across the country in a chaotic chase, punctuated with meltdowns and breakdowns, as they search for a dead body and a severed head.

Ross’s novel ends with the Bentleys moving to a small city where Philip will run a second-hand bookstore. After their unhappy year in Horizon, a year which followed eleven sad years in three similarly drab little towns, things may be coming together for the Bentleys. Philip will leave the hypocrisy of his clerical position and the couple can begin a new life. They’ll bring along Mrs. Bentley’s piano so she may teach music and have a recital, and they now have the adopted baby for whom she has so longed. After years of struggle it is, at last, a fresh beginning. What could go wrong?

Gowan’s narrator in The Beautiful Place is Philip’s grandson, and he discovers answers to this question. The end of the depression brought the beginning of the war and, not surprisingly, Philip left his family to join the army. He tells his grandson that the war was “the best time of my entire life”: it was “how I escaped the woman you thought of as your grandmother.” The previously unfulfilled and unhappy Reverend Bentley has finally achieved his dream of becoming a successful artist and now, decrepit and crotchety, is an apartment dweller in Vancouver’s West End.

The novel invites us to take a second look at the younger Bentleys and, on re-reading As for Me and My House, we begin to notice problems with the Bentley marriage. We see how frequently Philip, white faced, tries to retreat to his study and how persistently his wife interrupts him. She supposes that “It’s a woman’s way to subdue a man, to bind him to her, and it’s a man’s way to keep on just as determined to be free.”

Hints of Philip’s homosexuality appear in his wife’s accounts: “He likes boys,” she says, and right from the beginning she sees that “Women weren’t necessary or important to him.” In Gowan’s sequel, Bentley acknowledges his homosexuality and tells his grandson that he’s “seen a bit of the dark side,” that he has hung about in movie theatres and spent time with “the bottom-dwellers who don’t do bedrooms.”

As for Me and My House is recounted by Mrs. Bentley, and she presents herself as a self-sacrificing, supportive and forgiving helpmate who attends to her moody husband’s every need. But two generations later her grandson, glimpsing her in one of her husband’s paintings, suddenly sees her “staring back at me, her eyes accusing me of every sin I had ever committed.” Perhaps she’s not the “pure gold and wholly credible” woman described by Roy Daniells in his 1957 introduction to Ross’s novel. Instead, she appears to be controlling, manipulative, and endlessly judgmental.

Mrs. Bentley’s story is written as a personal diary; she is her own audience. The narrator of The Beautiful Place begins by saying, “I address this to you, Mary Abraham,” and Mary Abraham is the “you” to whom all the later portions of the novel are addressed. A mysterious woman who has met Jesus in a dream and shared a bowl of rice with Buddha, she is the inspiration and companion for his pilgrimage through the flat landscape and freezing breezes of Saskatchewan where they seek to reach The Beautiful Place in order to rescue the body of the narrator’s grandfather and the severed head of Mary Abraham’s husband.

A capable and entertaining writer, Gowan is also very funny, but death lurks throughout the novel. On the third page, the narrator holds his grandfather’s WWII service pistol in his hand, slides a single shell into it and contemplates suicide. Both the ancient gun and the old grandfather continue to make appearances until, on the last page, they are finally reunited and put to rest. Like the narrator, a cryonics salesman, Gowan also attempts to give the dead new life by reanimating Philip Bentley. In doing so, he makes us question whether people and books might not be at their best at the time in which they
were created. The Beautiful Place is Gowan’s fourth novel and it succeeds on many fronts: as a mysterious adventure, a love story, and as an irreverent and curiously enjoyable sequel to Ross’s novel.

*The Malahat Review, established in 1967, is among Canada’s leading literary journals. Published quarterly, it features contemporary Canadian and international works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction as well as reviews of recently published Canadian poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.

May 9, 2022

Mindful Of Murder
by Susan Juby

Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2022

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The British Columbia Review

There’s no time wasted getting to the murder scene in Susan Juby’s new mystery. The Prologue to Mindful of Murder gives a brief introduction to the victim, Edna Rodd, and by the fifth page we’ve watched her die a quick but relatively painless death, never noticing the figure watching by the bedroom door.

It’s good to cut to the chase, though I must admit I was sorry not to see a bit more of Edna, the owner of the Yatra Institute, a New Age retreat centre located on one of British Columbia’s Discovery Islands. A toned and lean seventy-two-year-old, Edna loved herself and was both loved and hated by those who knew her. Aware of the insistence of her own ego, she envisions it as a cat to whom she can give “the metaphorical equivalent of a soft pat” before setting it aside. That’s an image that will stay with me.

After a three-month silent self-retreat, Edna had decided on a plan for the future of the Yatra Institute but has died before being able to announce or implement it. However, she left her lawyer instructions that her former employee, Helen Thorpe, should carry out her wishes. Previously a Buddhist nun, Helen had worked at the Yatra Institute as a meditation teacher and lodge manager. Helen has now just graduated from the North American Butler Academy and, when she returns to the Institute, she brings along two of her fellow graduates, Gavin and Murray. Three butlers at a retreat centre!

In an interview on CBC, Juby said it occurred to her that a butler and a Buddhist, both tending to be centred and calm, would make a wonderful combination for an amateur sleuth. Indeed it does! Helen has a compelling presence that can only be described in one word: Helen. She’s able to maintain composure in the most alarming situations with the thought Never again this moment.

If you’ve been to the Hollyhock Leadership Learning Centre on Cortes Island, which Juby acknowledges as the inspiration for the fictional Yatra Institute, some of the scenery — not to mention the characters and community — may seem familiar. On arrival by float plane to Sutil Island, one of the Discovery Islands on the Salish Sea, Helen is greeted by Tanner who, Sutil-born and raised, is both beautiful and unkempt. When Helen asks if he’s looking for work, he replies “Nah, I’m fuelling up boats and planes here at the dock a couple of days a week and taking out the odd fishing charter. I wouldn’t want to lose my work-life balance by getting another gig.” This fits for the island, and Helen reflects that Tanner is “practically a workaholic compared to many of Sutil’s residents.”

Sutil Island is picturesque and the Yatra Institute, an old cedar lodge surrounded by enormous evergreens some of which had been “standing sentry” for two hundred years, has “the air of a building that would last forever.” But now there are strange undercurrents of energy around it, and the atmosphere becomes stranger as Helen begins her assignment of determining which of the motley collection of relatives is best suited to taking over management of the institute. The candidates are to stay at the institute for ten days during which time they will take courses in flower arranging, dance and meditation. As well, Helen will assess their paramis (things like generosity, equilibrium and discernment) and their brahmaviharas (kindness, joy and compassion.)

Susan Juby signs books, March 2022, at VIU’s Malaspina Theatre with the butler played by Daleal Monjazeb. Photo by Greg Sakaki, courtesy Nanaimo News Bulletin

The candidates are unattractive in quite different ways. The eldest, Wills, is a leathery, red-faced man who drinks heavily and tries to bribe the staff to bring him drugs. His brother Tad, a white-blond man with strange blue eyes that look like they belong on a sled dog or a goat, has a superior manner and is given to withering comments. Their cousin Whitney, the slim, quiet offspring of a domineering mother, is a teetotaling vegetarian who reads Thich Nhat Hanh and sneaks around the stairways. Rayvn Wildwood, the youngest of the group, is a black-sheep great-niece who is unknown to the others; she wears full camouflage gear with a bustier that reveals a lot of cleavage, has pointy black nails, and carries a black, physician’s bag.

After meeting the cousins Helen reflects that it will be a long ten days and that, if asked, she’d try to keep them all as far away from the Institute as possible. A reader might agree, and might suspect any one of them to be capable of murder.

Despite complaints from Wills and Tad, conditions for the assessment period are not arduous. Flower arranging involves “fierce seeking” to find your inner bloom, but the flowers are always gorgeous. Devi dance and Kundalini-inspired stretches, taught by the powerful Scottish instructor Wayfarer, have everyone running and leaping and dumping their inhibitions “like backpacks after school.” Helen’s meditation classes at the start and end of each day offer relaxation techniques which often cause the students to drift off to sleep. Chef Leticia’s fabulous vegetarian meals (Fanny Bay oysters wrapped in thin strings of crispy potatoes and salads of shredded dark wakame marinated in ginger), are served on hand-painted crockery from the Faiencerie de Glen in the Loire Valley.

Most of the events are recounted by a third-person narrator and focus on Helen’s activities and observations, but there are also short first-person narratives in the voices of one of the butlers and two of the cousins, and there are several accounts from Nigel, an orange-haired local youth hired to help the butlers. When he arrives, Nigel is dressed in a mixture of green, yellow, red and checked clothes that are too small and he seems to have bathed in an overpowering cologne which has a “high note of rotten citrus, a middle note of pressure-treated lumber, and a bottom note of petrochemical slurry.” For some reason, Helen can’t help liking him and, by the end of the novel, Nigel has given up the cologne, is growing out his hair, and begins to look “practically normal” in his dark denim apron and white shirt.

Nigel isn’t the only person to have been changed by the Yatra Institute. Ultimately, each of the characters has become more aware and almost a bit likeable. It’s possible to feel compassion for all of them, even for the murderer!

As Helen observes, the Yatra Institute is a special place. “It changed people.”

Author of many acclaimed novels for young and adult readers, Juby’s most recent book for adults, Republic of Dirt, won the Leacock Medal for Humour. Readers will find her new book to be an intriguing mystery that makes you think, makes you laugh, and may even make you want to go to Hollyhock to soak up the ambience and study mindful meditation.

* The British Columbia Review Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

April 25, 2022

Noonday Dark: Doctor Annick Boudreau Mystery No. 2
By Charles Demers

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2022

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The British Columbia Review*

Charles Demers’ new mystery, Noon Day Dark, checks off all the boxes for what I think a successful mystery should include: a strong hook, an engaging sleuth, an atmospheric setting, narrative momentum, a few red herrings and some interesting characters.

As in Demers’ first mystery, Primary Obsessions, the sleuth is Dr. Annick Boudreau, an Acadian cognitive therapist. If I were seeking therapy, she’s the one I’d want to see. Annick is smart, sexy, sharp-tongued sensitive and supportive. She’s also very funny and has a way with colourful language. You can’t help liking and rooting for her.

The novel’s hook is the mysterious disappearance of one of Annick’s patients, Danielle, an attractive young woman who’d been suffering from depression but recently seemed to have turned her life around. The police find a suicide note which they believe was the cause of her disappearance but Danielle’s father, Ivor McFadden, a former journalist with a desire to piss people off, is convinced that his daughter is still alive. He contacts Annick to ask for help in finding her and, despite her desire to maintain professional objectivity, Annick is drawn into the search.

Demers has set Noonday Dark in Vancouver, and anyone who knows the city will find his descriptions apt and enjoyable. There are recognizable locations like the Sylvia Hotel, the Centre for Italian Culture and a pool hall at Nanaimo and Hastings, and there are views of Coal Harbour and of East Vancouver. There’s familiar weather: an overwhelming grey and an incessant downpour “hitting the windows with the intensity of make-believe rain in movies,” and the Lions, “like French Royalty,” appear headless in the fog. Once summer is over, Vancouver residents race home to put their socks on the baseboards and their umbrellas in the bathtub.

As the story progresses, we’re thrown quickly into the politics of a recently elected city council, “the rotten fish situation” at City Hall, and the possible involvement of the Satan’s Hammers Motorcycle Club. The chase to find Danielle involves a number of red herrings and a fair amount of danger along the way, and the pursuit presents a lively cast of characters, including a charismatic new mayor and a couple of unpleasant mayoral aides.

Central to the narrative is Annick’s very fit and handsome Chinese-Canadian boyfriend Philip, a science journalist whose East Vancouver childhood included gang fights and who can recognize a Glenn Gould recording by ear. His mother, Denise, serves endless courses of exotic dishes (including a uniquely thrilling combination of beef and bitter lemon), recycles the popcorn garlands on her Christmas tree, and offers encouragement and bribes to persuade Philip and Annick that it’s time for them to have a baby, a possibility that continues as a subtext throughout the novel.

Readers of Primary Obsessions will be pleased to see the return of Bonnie Ashford, a scotch-drinking local crime reporter who dresses like someone who “might occasionally lend Diane Keaton some of her less sophisticated items.” Cedric, Annick’s Jamaican-Canadian-Zen Buddhism and mindfulness practicing colleague, is back again. He maintains a low profile but knows just when to appear silently to lay a gentle hand on her shoulder and place a perfectly prepared large cup of coffee on her desk. On the other side of the country, Annick’s Acadian parents are still playing a part in her life.

A new character, Reverend Beatrice Carmichael, the Bahamian priest of St. Clare’s church, is a squeaky wheel who has a good sense of city politics. Her sermons note that the congregation lives on stolen land which the church helped to steal. In describing her work, Reverend Carmichael makes reference to Paul Robeson and William of Ockham, and she preaches about the need for careful city planning with engagement of all levels of government and indigenous nations.

Perhaps this novel’s most interesting character is Parminder Gill, nicknamed “Chicken Parm,” who wears a T-shirt featuring a cobra and threatening “If Provoked – WE WILL STRIKE.” A member of the International Brotherhood of Longshoreman, Parm takes offence at the suggestion that he might know something about Satan’s Hammers’ possible involvement in Danielle’s disappearance. Parm argues that the Maritime Labourers’ Hall is not a bikers’ clubhouse and says there’s a lot of good people in the waterfront union “working like goddam mules out of this very goddam hall.” Demers reiterates this in his Author’s Notes, pointing out that the labour movement has been a force for good in the city and that “a few bad apples, in a mystery novel storyline or the odd newspaper report,” doesn’t distract from that.

In between seeing her regular patients – one with general anxiety, one panic disorder, one PTSD and a couple of OCDs on a typical day — Annick travels back and forth across town by foot, by Sky Train, by car, and eventually by a risky ferry trip to a Gulf Island. It’s a riveting chase!

Noonday Dark is a good sequel to Primary Obsessionsand, in my opinion, a better book. Although Dr. Boudreau again steps out of her professional role as a therapist to become involved in detective work, she’s a little less rash and the story progresses more smoothly and believably. While Primary Obsessions focuses somewhat obsessively on explaining the trauma of OCD and the stigmatism attached to it, this new novel has a lighter touch both in describing the work of a cognitive therapist and in exploring political manipulation and the tensions between gentrification and environmental issues.

Charles Demers is a man of many talents: a stand-up comedian, actor, playwright, author of essays and a political activist. You can see him in person at the Rio Theatre on comedy nights. You can subscribe to his newsletter. You can hire him as a stand-up or as a voice actor. Or you can just read his mysteries which seem to embody all these perspectives.

I hope it won’t be long before Demers creates the next Dr. Boudreau mystery. I’m keen to read it.

* The British Columbia Review Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

January 30, 2022

Fake It So Real
by Susan Sanford Blades

Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2020

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The British Columbia Review.*

“I sometimes call it, like, a punk rock Alice Munro,” Susan Sanford Blades said about her debut novel Fake It So Real in an interview with Capital Daily. While it does focus on some of Munro’s topics, adolescence, marriage, divorce, motherhood and the daily lives of girls and women struggling against adversity, the book lacks the irony and honesty that illuminate Munro’s short stories and it presents characters who are a lot less likeable than those Munro offers.

Fake it So Real is not a novel everyone will enjoy. If you don’t like the idea of being immersed in every kind of bodily fluid such as blood, sweat, semen, urine, shit and snot, you should not begin it. The novel opens in June of 1983 and in it, from the first sentence when Shepps enters the “seagull shit-streaked doors of Pluto’s Diner,” we are introduced to a world which is unfailingly grimy, gritty and bleak. Shepps is braceleted by masking tape and is “as greasy and limp as an undercooked French fry.” Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, is “traipsing around the joint, braless in a pit-stained T-shirt, snarling at customers through her ever-moist Fire Red pout.”

By the third page, Shepps is turning up every afternoon asking to eat Gwen out and then “smearing Gwen over every inch of vinyl in the place.” On the sixth page, Gwen is having sex with Damian Costello, the leader of the band Dorothy’s Rainbow, who “shimmied her on to the beach and banged her head on a rock before flopping on top of her.”

After a brief pause, still on page six and sometime in July, the setting has changed and on Damian’s coffee table we see:

bags of Cheetos, Gwen’s bare ass, two guitars, seven pipes, Ricky’s spare change, Damian’s bare ass, the soles of Gwen’s shit-kickers, one issue of Verbal Assault, seven tea lights, ten two-sixes of vodka, one burning stick of patchouli, three boogers, one wad of Hubba Bubba and a small, terrifying object.

The terrifying object’s urine-soaked blue line prompts the question “Do we want this?” and after a brief discussion in which the prospective parents wonder if they want to kill a “baybeh” until Damian says, “Fuck, yeah. A baby. An experiment. A tiny me.”

It seems an inauspicious start for a fetus but Gwen and Damian get married, have another baby, Meg, and stay together for about seven years until Damian disappears, leaving Gwen with two children for whom she seems unable to care, physically or emotionally. When the teacher at her daughter Sara’s school asks for a meeting, Gwen struggles to pull herself together and parades the girls out of the apartment, “their teeth gummed with cereal crumbs, the hands milk-sticky.” Asked about the girls’ behaviour at home, she can’t answer because at home she lived “from bubble bath to bed” and “Everything in between was a vodka-smeared blur.”

Some readers may have stopped reading by now but, if you are like me, you may somehow be gripped by Gwen’s bizarre world and want to know how the two daughters will fare. The next 210 pages are really just variations on the same themes and tropes, and yet there is something that draws you on. Not surprisingly, the daughters do not have easy lives. Most of the men in this novel are selfish and immature and, given the absence of their father and the erratic presence of their drunken mother, neither Sara nor Meg have any idea of how to be wives or mothers.

What is it that lures the reader into these lives? Is it the vigour of the language describing people who don’t do much and rarely communicate with each other but are given to flopping, slamming, traipsing, spinning, sucking, gasping, squishing, grabbing, flipping, sloshing and squeezing which fascinates us? Or do we read it in order to see what happens to this collection of unappealing young people? (In the mid-eighties, when this novel is set, I spent a certain amount of time in Victoria hanging out in coffeehouses and clubs at poetry readings but I don’t recall meeting people like these ones.) Are we meant to better understand the misfortunes of a marginalized little group of poor, unkempt and ill-fated misfits? It’s not clear, and yet I read though to the end.

The book consists of fourteen linked stories, eleven of which were first published in a variety of literary journals, including one which was selected for the Journey Prize anthology. This publishing history testifies to the power of the writing and its appeal to many editors. I don’t see it as punk Alice Munro. Although linked, the collection lacks the flow and vivacity of Lives of Girls and Women, but it does have the urgency of a tale that needs to be told.

* The British Columbia Review Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

October 17, 2021

Shadow Life
by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

New York: First Second Books (Macmillan), 2021. Distributed by Raincoast Books. $24.99

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Ormsby Review.*

Vancouver poet and novelist Hiromi-Goto’s graphic novel Shadow Life, brilliantly illustrated by Ann Xu, is a vollendungsroman, a story about aging and the “winding down” of life. I don’t know much about graphic novels, but I do know something about aging and about how stories work.

When I read cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s Maus some 30 years ago I thought there could be no more powerful way of describing the horrors of the Holocaust. By using sketches of animals – Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs — the novel allowed us to maintain a distance that helped us to endure the hellish account. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, published in 2004 and later made into a film, also uses the graphic novel to show life in Iran during the Islamic revolution through the eyes of a young girl, revealing ways in which war and political repression affect a child’s daily life.

I realized that sometimes large questions can be made more accessible and more powerful in a graphic format. Shadow Life uses this format to present an inspiring model of how to confront the challenges of old age and endure them with courage, humour, endurance and imagination.

The elderly protagonist, Kumiko, runs away from the long-term care facility into which her children have placed her. Bored with the conversation of the other residents and the “meddlers” that come to her door there, she packs up a few keepsakes and escapes into the night, bravely running through dark corridors and spooky stairways.

She manages to set herself up in a small apartment of her own and the images of early scenes in her domestic life have a sweetness and charm to them as she hangs pictures, sets up her computer and prepares meals. Her neighbours are kind to her and she decides that there is both “Nice Meddling and Meddler’s Meddling.” Her new life is, for the most part, a happy one with blissful times in the swimming pool and or bathtub, and the daily pleasure of choosing just what she wants to cook and eat.

Many elderly readers will be familiar with assisted care facilities and will appreciate Kumiko’s observation that “Green Acres sounds like a retirement home for farm animals.” We’ve all had connections with such places, often named Pineridge or Evergreen or Rosewood or Willowdale, and we can sympathize with Kumiko’s determination to leave in order to make her own choices.

On the other hand, daily life for elderly people living alone can be precarious. Kumiko loses her keys, forgets to take her pills, has a painful fall that takes her to the hospital. It’s not always easy to navigate one’s freedom in later years.

And, although she’s able to run away from the constraints of Green Acres, Kumiko cannot escape Death’s Shadow, which follows her in the form of black spots or a cat or a spider or a curious creature in a plaid shirt. Some of Xu’s sketches of this shape-shifting presence are terrifying, and this is where we see the power of the graphic novel as it creates the kind of experience we have of dreams or nightmares. In these experiences in which images, not words, are best able to convey the truth.

The stories and settings in this novel suggest British Columbia with references to Japanese Canadians being sent to prison camps during the war and sketches that show Vancouver-type buses and streets. A lake lined with pine trees, the site of Kumiko’s husband’s death, is very West Coast. There are also references to the severed feet which have been washed ashore in BC.

Goto’s text is crisp, clever and very witty, and Xu’s powerful images are heightened by exclamations like FROOMP!, POP!, GULP!, WHIRR, SMACK and FWOOSH! In her Author’s Note, Goto says “Graphic novels are visual articulations of story that demonstrate material possibilities that novels cannot … they perform representation, literally.” It’s true. The whole book feels intensely immediate.

The vollendungsroman typically includes a life review and a coming to terms with what has been and what might have been which may lead to a healing of old wounds and an affirmation of love. Happily, at the conclusion of this novel, Kumiko is re-united with her daughters and with her former lover. Kumiko’s landlord says of her, “You’re something else, old woman,” and we have to agree.

An emigrant from Japan, Goto acknowledges that her grandmother, Oba-Chan, has had a strong influence on her life which perhaps explains the depth one sees in her portrait of Kumiko. In her Author’s Note, Goto speculates that one reason she writes about older women is because it helps her to imagine who she will become: “It is my dream to become more like my grandmother,” she says.

Shadow Life is a moving representation of what it means to be growing old, wishing for independence, accepting what is and preparing to face death. It’s a good story.

*The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

October 29, 2021

No Mans Land
by John Vigna

Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021
$22.95 / 9781551528663

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Ormsby Review.*

I really don’t like violence in fiction — surely there is enough of it in the world around us — but I was drawn into John Vigna’s No Man’s Land because of the powerful beauty of the landscape and Vigna’s muscular prose in describing it: “the wind scrubbed the alpine clean and cirrus sky was tufted with streaks like mare’s tales, the land yellow and tawny, lacerated by brown trails and the green river.” Set in the Canadian Northwest at the end of the nineteenth century, Vigna portrays a world of violence and depravity in which people pursue personal pilgrimages across a treacherous terrain.

Throughout the novel there are many references to the King James Bible and, from the outset, the narrative has a biblical feel:

In the beginning, a land, void, without form…. Oh heavenly presence, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the void… as though in prayer, aspen, birch, cottonwood, bushy alder and willow leaned over the roaring water.

The description of the early world is abundant with a wondrous array of sky-blue lupins and wild-pink geraniums and every species of flora and fauna, beasts and birds and whitefish and salmon. The First People arrive and adapt to life on the plains, and then come the “sallow-skinned Europeans” who seize and occupy and plunder, claiming the land as their own.

On the crest of Crowsnest Pass, Will and his father are given a warning from the wind to go home and to take only what they need to survive another year. A choice. The warning is not heeded and the choices that are made are almost all bad ones.

Blairmore, Alberta, in the Crowsnest Pass, circa 1905-10. Courtesy Viv Bergman

Will’s journey begins with a curse. His father says that Will’s grandfather had condemned him when he was not yet an hour old, declaring that he had the hands of a thief. According to his father, Will was “broken from the beginning” and that he is fulfilling his fate. The question of fate versus self-determination is explored and discussed throughout the novel.

At the heart of the story is Will’s daughter Davey, a fourteen-year-old girl whose mother died in a bloody massacre when Davey was an infant. Davey is taken in by a collection of thieves and murderers led by a charismatic preacher. Reverend Brown, a small man in a black cassock with a crown of cedar twigs, is captivating, eloquent and debauched. He drinks and dances with whores, kidnaps, tortures, murders, steals, and bears a stolen cross above his head, chanting bits of Latin as he parades about with his drunken disciples. And yet, when he delivers sermons and offers baptism, his congregation cheers.

Some people doubt whether Reverend Brown is truly a man of god, but it is only Davey who confronts and questions him. “You talk to avoid the truth,” she says, and “Your saying so doesn’t make it true. I see you. I’ve always seen you.” Davey stays with this bizarre tribe in part because she wants community and is seeking family. At first she is trying to learn who her father is; later she is searching for her own lost child. Davey is a seeker, and is seen by others as a fine and courageous person.

Reverend Brown is a persuasive and often poetic orator who claims to “move in mysterious ways.” A trickster who allows people to think he performs miracles, he insists that all our actions are part of a preordained path: “It does not matter what fork you choose, what you believe, it will still lead you there…. To move is already part of your fate.” Davey claims that she chooses her own way, but he argues that freedom is illusory.

“Unflinching” is a word that has been used to describe Vigna’s earlier book, Bull Head, and the description applies here as well. Much that is vicious, violent and horrifyingly cruel is faced in No Man’s Land. There are massacres, drunken brawls, slaughter of animals, rape, child abuse, torture and every kind of ugliness. About the of killing of people and animals, Davey observes that some of the men are “not happy unless they’re killing something.”

Yet there are also points of light both in the resilience of the landscape and in the many acts of kindness and generosity. Sadly, the wind’s warning to take only what was needed was ignored, and towards the end of the novel an old man talks about the loss of the bison, about gold, coal, logging and killing of animals, and says, “Getting the trees down as fast as they can and cartin’ all of it elsewhere. Ain’t going to be nothing and nobody left but the men who brought this on themselves. And then what?”

Vigna’s writing has been compared to Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, but for me No Man’s Land recalls the landscape, complexity and deep symbolism of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook and in the balancing of good and evil and light and darkness. I recall an observation Wilson made about how people, if they have no mediating rituals, are driven towards violence or insensibility. There’s certainly plenty of violence and insensibility here, but there are also some mediating rituals such as the touching scene in which Fumiko tenderly bathes and cares for the wounded Davey. There’s a sense of communion in the sharing of bread and water that Smith brings to Davey. And there’s the leather sack that Davey has carried on her waist and passes on to Grace, the girl she has rescued and named. The sack contains small relics of Davey’s history, and pieces of cloth from Grace’s people.

Reading this novel is not always a comfortable experience, but the book is well worth exploring and perhaps reading more than once. And, when the world falls silent at the end of the novel, there’s a reassuring suggestion that Grace, and perhaps some hope and charity, will continue.

John Vigna of Vancouver

*The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

Aug 29, 2021

The Last Goldfish: A True Tale of Friendship
by Anita Lahey

Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2020

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Ormsby Review.*

Part bildungsroman and part meta-memoir, Anita Lacey’s The Last Goldfish; A True Tale of Friendship is an account of a young girl watching a beloved friend struggle with and ultimately succumb to cancer at a time when her life should have been just opening up. The story is a step-by-step account of a friendship related through daily events, flashbacks, journal notes, and medical reports about the progress of the cancer and the deepening of the bond between the two.

Written over a twenty-five-year period, Lahey experimented with different ways of telling her story but finally, as she said in an interview with her publisher, she realized that this tale of friendship was as much about her as about her friend and she “only aimed to be as true to the story as I possibly could be.” She is successful in this aim: the everyday events of the girls’ friendship from the start of Grade Nine through to Louisa’s death when they were twenty-two years old. The notes they slip back and forth in class, the poems they record in their journals, their applications to university, their conversations about boys and sex, their hopes, their anxieties and Louisa’s worsening illness: all of it rings true.

It’s easy to understand Lahey’s devotion to her friend. A force of nature, Louisa embodies their motto of Carpe Diem, the message which is written on a sheet of paper she drops onto Lahey’s lap when the two of them decide to tackle the school board about its final exam policy. From their first meeting, Louisa radiates energy with her thick red hair that was “like an explosion in a comic script,” and her blue eyes, which were “not the usual sky blue: deep and rich, like new jeans right out of the wash.”

In episodes that take place over the next several years we witness Louisa’s weight loss, the appearance of new “bumps” in various parts of her body, the changes in her face, her sunken cheeks, and the loss of her hair. Towards the end, her face becomes translucent and her cheekbones become “delicate sculptures” with her eyes floating above “like planets on a mobile.” The ghastly progression of this illness is reported clearly and without sentimentality, and the effect is devastating.

Lahey is an award-winning poet, a journalist, and a writer of essays. As a poet, she is known for metaphor, imagery, and sharp descriptions. In The Last Goldfish, we see both her poetic talent and her journalistic skill at work. In one hospital scene, she describes taking the elevator down to the hospital basement while trying not to read the directional signs to the morgue as they head to “vending-machine heaven” in a “low-ceilinged cavernous room lit with fluorescent lights” and a range of machines that contain carousels filled with yogurt cups, lone apples and oranges, plastic-wrapped carrot sticks, granola bars, and so forth. Lacey captures the depressingly mundane details of the setting but also sees it tragically, as “an Edward Hopper painting, black and overlit, filled with sad faces and unsatisfied hunger.”

There are short periods between Louisa’s treatments that seem briefly hopeful but these are interrupted with the re-appearance of new cysts. The cancer comes and goes like another character in the chronicle, and each appearance is followed by new forms of tests and treatment: pills, ultrasounds, CAT scans, yoga programs, a cancer support centre, visualization instructions, and chemotherapy. There’s also Levamisole, an immunomodulator that sounds like “a piece of machinery equipped with knobs and controls, by which you could reset your whole immune system. Like any improbable invention, it was imperfect, even dangerous.”

The young Lahey tries to assess the situation from day to day, wondering about what the cancer was but then concluding that she and her friend have “things to do, people to see.” She arranges outings and activities until Louisa decides to move to Vancouver to be with her boyfriend. They maintain contact through telephone conversations but soon Louisa calls in a voice that “seemed almost entirely devoid of herself” and reports that she has tumours in her throat. She asks her friend if she could come to visit, and of course she does.

The title of the story refers to an anecdote of an early school science experiment that required Lahey and another girl to compare how well goldfish survived in different settings. At the end of the book, three goldfish are left in Louisa’s care and two of the fish die. Lahey ends up with the last goldfish but can’t remember how long it survived: “at some point it swims right out of my memory.” She wonders whether Louisa might have thought the fish was cute, but of course she can’t ask. Lahey is “frustrated or saddened, occasionally outraged, by the eternity tied to that can’t.”

The story loops about in time. Louisa does not swim away but we, following Lahey’s memories, swim around and through her memories, piecing together a story of the years during which the girls grew up together. At the end of the book, the narrative returns to the scene at the start of the beginning and Lahey’s first meeting with Louisa in her Grade Nine French class. Now, at mid-life, the author recalls her early clarity about the difference between passé composé and imperfait but she questions the finality of passé composé. “Grammar,” she says, “fails to account for memory and its workings, for the continual overlay of plotlines and half-written stories in the most modest of lives.”

Every loss is unique and each bereavement has its own story. The story here is of a remarkable friendship that tracks a painful illness and a premature death while still maintaining exuberance, hope, humour, and love. How lucky Anita was to have such a friend. How lucky we all are that Anita Lacey has told the story of it.

*The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

Aug 17, 2021

Care Of: Letters, Connections, and Cures
by Ivan Coyote

Toronto: Penguin Random House (McClelland & Stewart), 2021

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Ormsby Review.*

On October 14, 2021, Care Of: Letters, Connections, and Cures, by Ivan Coyote, reviewed below by Carol Matthews, was announced as one of five books shortlisted in the Non-fiction category of the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Winners will be announced on Nov. 17, 2021. See here for details — Ed.

One day in March, 2020, Ivan Coyote received an email telling them that the next day’s roadshows had been cancelled. A few days later, they learned that most of their events, plans and main source of income had evaporated. Feeling unable to continue with the story they were writing, Ivan turned to the file of letters, emails, and hand-written notes and began to re-read and answer many of them in letters that sometimes ran to four or five pages. Ivan notes that these response “would never have come out of me if the world hadn’t forced most of us to stop and stay in one place for these last long and lonely months.”

Writer, performer, film-maker, storyteller, activist, and author of thirteen books, Ivan Coyote has travelled the world telling stories about their trials and adventures growing up in the Yukon as “a two-spirited tomboy.” As a non-binary, trans person, they have been an advocate for the LGBTQ2S community for decades. People who have heard them speak in classrooms, auditoriums, libraries, and other community settings testify to the profound effect their stories have for all listeners. In Care Of: Letters, Connections, and Cures, Ivan reveals even more deeply their capacity to be a compassionate listener who responds to fans with understanding and thoughtful care.

In an interview in the Vancouver Sun, Ivan claimed that they are not trained as a counsellor and it would be irresponsible to function as a therapist in these situations. “This book Care Of is in many ways a continuation of the work I have tried to do with my other works, but in a very overt way.” Though not a therapist, Ivan’s “overt,” compassionate, caring, and insightful responses may well offer more healing than what any professional treatment could.

My friend, who has for many years been a school counsellor working with LGBTQ2S teenagers, comments on how important it is for these young people to see and hear from Ivan Coyote that they are not alone. It’s helpful, she says, for them to see someone who is completely at ease with who they are telling stories about the many challenges of their own journey, and reflecting on the experiences of other young people who didn’t fit into traditional identities or labels.

The stories told in the Care Of letters reveal the various experiences of people who have been oppressed by parental or societal expectations. They are sometimes funny and always poignant, producing both laughter and tears. In an earlier book, Tomboy Survival Guide, Ivan recalls their own challenges and adventures growing up butch and offers tactics for negotiating that landscape and staying true to one’s self. A later book, Rebent Sinner, tells stories about being trans and non-binary in terms of patriarchal and political oppression. Care Of is different: issues here are presented in a very immediate and personal context through the individual letters Ivan has received and their heartfelt, compassionate, and understanding responses.

Care Of is not an easy read. Letters from parents, teenagers, and seniors tell of the pain and shame of having to hide who they really are. Reading them, I found I had to stop frequently to reflect on how narrow my own knowledge is and to consider how our social attitudes force people into physical and interpersonal behaviours that can be deeply wounding.

For example, Ivan shares a handwritten letter  from a teacher who felt guilty about not inviting a cohort of student teachers to their performance because it would mean “sharing my truths and shame to people who still fail to see me.” Ivan responds by telling stories of some of the students who have talked to them at school events. They acknowledge that this teacher knows such stories and affirms that “I am right there beside you… You will change that school faster and deeper and more fundamentally than any shiny-shoed storyteller ever can.”

Many of Ivan’s listeners hang around after their talks for individual conversations, and a great many initiate a connection through letters, emails, or even a note tucked under a windshield wiper. It’s clear that listeners idolize Ivan and yet feel able to connect easily with them. One letter is from a man who describes himself as “the father of a wonderful, courageous, cynical, hilarious, transgender son,” who writes about having been in “denial or avoidance mode” and thanks Ivan for sharing his story. “Thank you for cracking my heart wide open,” he says. Ivan replies in a long letter about their own relationship with their father and says, “I’m crying now as I type…I’ve never curled up under the covers and cried because my father didn’t understand me, but I weep even as I write to you today because he didn’t listen, and he doesn’t ask, and he didn’t try. You did, and you do, and you are.”

Throughout the book, Ivan’s gratitude and appreciation for their correspondents rings true. In the acknowledgments they thank the letter writers, urge them to stay in touch, and remind them that they have two free copies of the book and a cheque for each letter-writer. They acknowledge everyone involved in producing the book, every member of their family, their “partner and collaborator and co-conspirator” and daily inspiration — and both of their grandmothers.

Ivan is a great conjurer, and the Care Of letters, rich in stories, are a great gift to all of us. “Storytellers,” they conclude. “We can’t help but keep hoping that there might just be a happier ending there somewhere.” And sometimes there is, when a beloved role model and storyteller takes the time to reach out and connect with someone who is suffering. Their words uplift us all.

“Please, please stay as safe as you can and keep in touch,” is how they end most of their letters. As a reader, I want to say the same to Ivan Coyote.

*The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

August 28, 2021

obittersweet: Life Lessons from Obituaries
by Tamara Macpherson Vukusic

Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 2020

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Ormsby Review.*

As a long-time reader of obituaries, I was delighted to receive a copy of Tamara Macpherson Vukusic’s collection of essays which is aptly titled obittersweet. Describing her Sunday morning ritual “with coffee in one hand and the obituaries in the other,” she asks “Why obituaries?” and explains that, for her, this ritual began when she worked as a communications officer for a Veterans’ Health Centre, seeking out details of the lives of people with whom she’d previously worked.

It’s a great idea for a book because, after all, aren’t a great many of us are regular readers of obituary columns? Some of us read obituaries to see if anyone they know has died. For some, it’s because of an interest in the lengths of the lives lived, noting that some weeks all the deaths are of very old people whereas at other times the column consists, shockingly, of people younger than oneself. And for many it can be a fascination with the way obituaries can capture the essence of a person’s life. I’ve heard that, after the front page, the obituaries are the most frequently read section in a newspaper. Like many, I enjoy reading them because they conjure up a portrait of a person that would not be present at any other time.

Obituaries recount people’s whole lives, often seemingly ordinary ones, and summarize their relationships, the work they did, the obstacles they encountered and the ways in which they overcame. As well, ideally, it shows what made them unique. Even in a very short obituary we may get a sense of what was distinctive about a person: quirks, loves and pet peeves. As Vukusic notes, an economy of words — nine or ten or even fewer — can help to distil the real essence of a person: “Thanks for the firm hand; thanks for letting go,” or “He patiently acted as the family Google to the end.”

The 120 “micro-biographies” in this collection are cleverly organized, each one being followed by additional facts, and sometimes the author’s fancies, that expand and embellish the story as she connects it with her own life experience. Each one concludes with a question that encourages readers to think more deeply about their own lives. Vukusic is a thorough journalist, and the final pages give a full list of obituary credits and the various sources consulted, testifying to her extensive research.

The essays are divided into monthly sections, and the calendar can serve as a guide to the year. The January section begins with an admonishment:

This year, rather than crafting a New Year’s resolution, consider reflecting on what you already do that is worth celebrating. Resolve to live your life in a way that, when you are gone, people notice something unique and precious missing.

I don’t generally enjoy self-help books, but Vukusic uses the lessons she gleans from her study of obituaries to prompt some really helpful reflection that could help readers to become better citizens who make important contributions to those around them. Her questions lead us to explore how we might endure difficulties, create a life that that satisfies our deepest desires, and perhaps encourages others to make positive changes.

Following the recollections of a man who at the age of 40 left his career as a lawyer to become a teacher whose “genuine passion” for his work was a life-changing inspiration for his students, the question asked is, Regardless of your age, how can you craft a life that allows you to engage your passions? Who will thank you for it?

There’s the story of a woman who, because of multiple sclerosis, spent years in a wheelchair during which time she acquired skills in mouth painting and used her voice-activated computer to recruit volunteers for a variety of community events. Vukusic’s question to us is, What personal challenges can you reframe to enable others to see possibility in adversity? And there’s also the obituary of a women suffering from undiagnosed dementia whose hallucinations and paranoia “crept into her life like a bad neighbour,” yet was able to love life and its precious moments in the midst of trauma and chaos. The question at the end of this story is, What joy can you find in the midst of chaos? How do you find it?

If I have one quibble with this book it’s that it leans rather heavily on the sweet versus the bitter. That’s not surprising, given that obituaries tend to be tributes, not denunciations, and it’s heartening to read of the long and happy marriages and the endurance, resilience and generosity of so many. However, Vikusic’s imagination sometimes leads her to indulge in sentimentality as when she wonders “Did June bury her head in the back of his neck and breath him in?” and “Can you picture them giddy with excitement sitting on the train as the shrill whistle announced the start of their journey together?”

At the end of the book, Vukusic proposes while reading obituaries we might imagine that, instead of the face of a stranger, we see our black and white photo staring at us with a short summation of our own life. It could make one recall the message in the 15th century morality play Everyman: “O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.” Death can happen at any time and it behooves us to consider that, throughout our lives, we’re gathering material for that final portrait.

Despite its sombre topicobittersweet is a cheerful and ultimately uplifting book. If you’re looking for a gift to give to a friend who is depressed or at a stuck place in her life, this may be the perfect choice.

*The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

Summer 2021

The Wig Maker

Janet Gallant and Sharon ThesenThe Wig-Maker 

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Malahat Review *

In recounting a lifetime of abandonment, sexual abuse, mental illness, suicide, loss, desperation, and healing, Janet Gallant and Sharon Thesen create a disturbing yet ultimately inspiring collaboration which is part biography, part memoir, part poetry, and part lament. The story is Gallant’s and the voice is hers; Thesen transcribes and transforms the narrative into a long poem. The Wig-Maker reverberates with echoes of moans—“I live in my mom’s moan” and “You never forget that moaning / Those deep, deep cries”—and those echoes linger with the reader, reminding us of the connection between moan and mourn. Thesen’s repetitions of Gallant’s words give the sense of keening at a wake.

There are many ways to shape a personal memoir. It may emerge as non-fiction, creative non-fiction, or as fiction loosely based on personal experience. What matters is that the story be told, and humans have always wanted to tell their stories. In paintings on the cave walls at Lascaux, in the oral histories of indigenous people, the songs of Orpheus, the prophecies of Cassandra, the Norse sagas of the Middle Ages, and the tales of Jacob Grimm we find accounts that help us connect with others and understand more about our own lives and the world in which we live. We read and listen to stories in order to understand ourselves and what it means to be human. We recount our own stories so that they may become part of a larger fabric of human
experience and may offer guidance to our listeners.

In The Wig-Maker, we hear two storytellers speak together. It’s a sad story. Gallant’s father abuses all his children: physically, sexually and emotionally. He calls Janet for “tea‐time,” and when Janet takes the tea downstairs, he opens his fly. Afterwards, she goes back upstairs and brushes her teeth. With Gallant’s older sister, Penny, he has intercourse. He also brutalizes her older brother, Billy, beating him and throwing him about, and Billy utters “an animal‐like cry, a moan.” Eventually, Billy hangs himself in a closet with a bicycle hook. Soon after Billy’s suicide, Penny is “taken while drunk and impregnated with her first child.” Gallant’s early experiences with her father and the next‐door neighbour lead her into abusive relationships with older boys, believing “That’s what love meant.”

Despite her father’s horrific treatment of her and her siblings, Gallant wants to understand why he was such a monster. “Was it the military—or was it his own father—or was it the Church,” she wonders. She makes excuses for him, reflecting on the poverty of his childhood, his lack of education, the difficulty of raising five kids on a soldier’s salary, and searches to find something to appreciate in him: “My dad
could have given us away but he didn’t.”

Only three years old when her mother left, Gallant spends years trying to find her, asking questions and making cold calls to possible relatives. It is a labyrinthine journey which leads to loss after loss. When she finally tracks down and meets her mother she sees, not the Diana Ross she’d fantasized, but a three-hundred-and-fifty-pound vegetable who left her children and became a tramp. The losses continue. Penny dies, despite Gallant’s attempts to care for her. Gallant’s husband and father of her two children also dies suddenly and tragically.

At the end of her search, Gallant learns through a DNA test that the man who abused her was not her biological father. Instead, it appears that her actual father was a member of the family that lived downstairs. Perhaps as a result of the many shocks she has experienced, Gallant loses her hair and is diagnosed with alopecia, a condition which leads her to learn the craft of wig‐making.

Wig-making doesn’t figure prominently in this novel, but it is an important metaphor for the book. Gallant works only with temple hair which she buys from certified dealers, hair that is obtained from young women who offer it at Indian temples as a sacrifice. Each hair must be drawn through separately and about 80,000 individual hairs are required to make each wig. It sounds like painstaking work, resembling
Gallant’s process of pulling together the individual threads of her history. “Wigs, as we all know, are powerful transformational magic,” Thesen says in one of her explanatory notes. It’s true. We may wear wigs to create a new self or, as is the case with sufferers of cancer or alopecia, in order to recollect the self that was once there. In this book, Gallant does both.

At the end of her quest, Gallant knows who she is. Settled with her partner on the side of a mountain overlooking Lake Okanagan, she has Mindy, her bichonn shih tzu, her successful wig‐making business, and an important friendship with the neighbour who helps her tell her story. “It really was and will continue to be magical,” Gallant says, “this collaboration, this friendship.”

Gallant’s voice is clear and strong throughout the book. Thesen, an award‐winning poet, editor, and teacher, rightly known for her lyricism and imagination, listens and writes as Gallant speaks and together they weep. The result is an unforgettable duet.

*The Malahat Review, established in 1967, is among Canada’s leading literary journals. Published quarterly, it features contemporary Canadian and international works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction as well as reviews of recently published Canadian poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.

Summer 2018

The House on Selkirk Ave

Irena Karafilly, The House on Selkirk Avenue

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Malahat Review *

Irena Karafilly, an award-winning Montreal writer and poet, has lived in five countries, and her writing reflects her cosmopolitan view of the world. One novel, Ashes and Miracles, was set in Poland; another, The Captive Sun, was set in Greece where it became a best-seller. In The House on Selkirk Avenue, the protagonist briefly recalls travels in France, Spain, Malaysia, Mexico, and England, yet the setting and flavour is unmistakably Montreal.

The story begins with a flashback of twenty-three-year-old Kate’s train trip to Paris. Heartbroken over the break-up with Guillaume, her French-Canadian lover, she has a one-night stand with an unnamed French soldier, which results in pregnancy. Just before embarking on this trip she had received a proposal from a young medical intern, Brad Thuringer, and promised to give him an answer on her return. Fortunately, he is still prepared to marry her and raise her child as his own.

We track Kate’s reflections when, twenty-six years later, she is back in Montreal helping her daughter settle into an apartment and begin studies at McGill. Megan has discovered Guillaume’s farewell letter to Kate packed away in a cardboard box of books shipped to Montreal along with Megan’s possessions. The letter sets Kate on a nostalgic quest to revisit her old haunts and review the political circumstances that caused the separation in order to piece it together with the reality of the life she has lived since, in Alberta with her husband and children.

Having lived in Montreal during the sixties and returned there for frequent visits during the eighties and nineties, I found myself gripped by the novel’s portrayal of the time, place, and spirit of the city during those two periods. Karafilly accurately captures the initially comfortable oblivion of English Montrealers during the early days of the Quiet Revolution, the horror when James Cross is kidnapped and Pierre Laporte is murdered, followed by the shock and confusion when the War Measures Act is declared. The experience of many Montrealers is described vividly in Guillaume’s poignant account of being carted off and jailed in the Parthenais Detention Centre for twelve days and “living through a Kafkaesque nightmare.” At first believing that the authorities would realize “it was all a mistake,” he is finally released because of lack of evidence. Describing himself as “utterly changed” by the experience, he writes that he can’t see her or his family, and “can’t even play the cello!”

As Kate tramps around the city seeking glimpses of the past and spotting people who look like Guillaume, Karafilly offers evocative images of Montreal’s current street life: St. Denis Street, “with its fanciful gables and wrought-iron balconies trailing ivy and spider ferns, petunias and morning glories;” Chinatown, “with whiffs of roasting duck and Oriental spice, the sweetish odour of discarded fruit rotting in wooden crates” and Westmount Park grounds where winding paths, trees and duck ponds, “captivate at this time of year, flaming with gold and scarlet.”

“A photographer is never entirely off the job,” we are told, and Kate almost always has a camera slung on her shoulder as she snaps photos of park after park, person after person. The purpose of photography, its pleasures and its drawbacks, provide an important and intriguing reference throughout the novel. Karafilly has been described as having a painter’s eye but in fact, like Kate, it is through a photographer’s lens that she portrays her characters. At times, the persistent photographer’s eye becomes tedious, offering too much surface and not enough depth.

Brad, is described as tall, handsome, and up-and-coming, with “an impressive mop of brownish-red hair, the colour of a chestnut mare,” but it’s hard to sense him as full-blown individual. Ivan, who Kate meets in a bar and spends a night with in a hotel, is tall, sandy-haired, with twinkling eyes and a lopsided, oddly beguiling smile, but neither Kate nor the reader know more about him. The aging but still glamourous Antonia is perfumed and coiffed with “an eye-popping collection of jangling bracelets” but, despite her importance in the novel, she remains a caricature.

The “three R’s” of a typical memoir are remember, regret, and reflect. While Kate’s story has some of these elements, she does not seem to regret what seems a cavalier treatment of her devoted husband. Acknowledging that Brad has behaved with dignity and integrity toward her and all members of her family, she discounts him as complacent, overconfident, “a man who took exceptional pride in his own virtue.” She admits she’s been “aloof and unyielding” in resisting Brad’s attempts to win her over, but insists that “no one could accuse her of not trying hard enough.” At the end of the story, after Antonia’s dramatic and disastrous birthday party, Kate wants to call her husband, perhaps hoping he will rescue her once again. In the final pages, she becomes the subject of another photographer’s relentless attention, and the picture we see at that point is not a pretty one.

 “Time flowing backward” is frequently mentioned observation in this novel which reminded me of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and Nicole Krauss’s History of Love, in which older characters reflect on the fluidity of time and the malleability of memory. While lacking the subtle depths of Barnes and the brilliant complexities of Krauss, Karafilly has nonetheless produced a capably crafted and cleverly layered work that is revealed in careful stages like a set of nested bowls.

*The Malahat Review, established in 1967, is among Canada’s leading literary journals. Published quarterly, it features contemporary Canadian and international works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction as well as reviews of recently published Canadian poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.

Autumn, 2019

Sea Trail Sailing After My Father

Brian Harvey, Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Malahat Review *

Something about an island invites circumnavigation. When my husband and I lived on Protection Island, our visitors frequently rowed around this small isle. Every year islanders participate in the Pro-Isle 360 which invites swimmers or anyone in a non-motorized vehicle to race around it; every second year, sailors circumnavigate Vancouver Island in the Van Isle 360 race. Vancouver Island’s majestic coastlines are challenging and worth writing about. Books like Elsie Hulsizer’s Voyages to Windward (2005) describe hair-raising adventures on the island’s west coast; M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time (1961) is a classic memoir of sailing in this area. Dag Goering and Maria Coffey documented an island circuit in their gorgeous book, Sailing Back in Time (2002)a memoir about friendship and adventure.

Brian Harvey’s Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father is also a double memoir. The title refers both to the trial of Harvey’s skills with his new sailboat and to his father’s trial for malpractice. The account documents Harvey’s journey around the island with his wife, Hatsumi, along with Charley, their little Schnauzer. Periodically, Harvey recalls an early trip with his father that left him out by Zero Rock, eight years old and “hangin’ on for dear life” while his father tried, futilely, to perform surgery on a malfunctioning engine. He reflects on their fraught relationship as he reviews boxes of papers related to his father’s career as a neurosurgeon, and at one point he refers to “weird parallels between boating and brain surgery.”  

Sea Trial is a page-turner of a book that instantly captures the reader’s attention on both aspects of the narrative. We’re curious about what lies ahead on the author’s dangerous voyage and what lay behind in the lawsuit his father faced after receiving a summons from the sheriff two years after retirement. Dr. Harvey, two others, and the hospital were charged with negligence in the case of a child they’d cared for decades earlier.

We can’t help but be fascinated with Harvey’s portrait of his father, a handsome and talented man who was also a violinist, a photographer, and a doctor whose grateful patients often sent thank-you notes, Christmas cards, and invitations to graduations. “I helped a lot of people” and “Most of them turned out well,” he tells his son about his work. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to appreciate the complicated nature of this private and proud man, though Harvey’s own feelings toward him are not clear.

While reviewing medical and legal files, Harvey conjures his father’s ghost and questions him about details of his cases. These interactions are often testy. The ghost appears at odd moments in peculiar outfits—“vile brown acrylic pants…oversized fuzzy slippers…a checkered flannel jacket”—and gives unsolicited advice about sailing and about writing. It’s hard not to agree with Harvey’s father when he advises “Keep it simple or you’ll lose your readers” and “Nobody wants to read all that stuff about survival rates,” but Harvey insists on reviewing every medical book and trial note that might explain the outcome of the lawsuit that had so haunted his father’s later years. He describes his father’s diligence, mentors, high standards, unflagging belief in the truth, and the tragic conclusion of his career. Going through this material, Harvey refers to “the flash and sizzle” of his father’s life as “no more than a mosquito caught in the bug zapper on a summer night.”  

Moving through the wide ocean territory of his expedition, Harvey weaves in facts about the land and its people, including the histories of Indigenous, Chinese, and Japanese peoples. He reports encounters with clear-cut logging practices and questionable salmon farms, which he finds “disturbing.” He notes the difficulty of sorting the science from the rhetoric and says “Nobody’s going to win this battle, or if they do, it won’t have anything to do with science.” Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to learn more about what Harvey, as a marine biologist, had to offer as solutions to such problems.

The ever-present and practical Hatsumi and the resilient Charley ground the account with their needs and responses to the adventures. Charley quivers with fear then goes to shore to pee, play with sticks, and make friends with other dogs. Stoic under circumstances that cause the boat to roll and the gorge to rise, Hatsumi becomes as “white as the sail I couldn’t get down.” She regularly contributes solid navigational skills and shrewd advice when needed while, at other times, she quietly retreats to the cabin to do yoga.

Having previously published two mystery novels, Harvey is a master of suspense and knows well how to keep us intrigued. He’s a faithful and detailed reporter of the people he meets. On Lasqueti Island we meet “the Jones boys,” who operate a shellfish hatchery and farm at Skerry Bay and are portrayed as “eccentric, generous and strong.” The description fits many of the people the Harveys encounter in their stops at small communities and anchorages, but there are also occasional suggestions of unsavory characters such as “the axe murderer” and others on Minstrel Island.

Many people are writing memoirs these days and most are narrow and self-regarding — the literary equivalent of a “selfie”— but Harvey covers a range of topics. An accomplished writer, his voice is clear and engaging throughout. Sea Trial will attract readers interested in sailing, medicine, the environment, detective work, epic travel, or just a family pilgrimage, well-told with honesty and humour.

*The Malahat Review, established in 1967, is among Canada’s leading literary journals. Published quarterly, it features contemporary Canadian and international works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction as well as reviews of recently published Canadian poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.

Autumn, 2016

Two-Gun & Sun

June HuttonTwo-Gun & Sun

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Malahat Review *

Set in a West Coast mining town in the 1920s, Two Gun & Sun, contains drama and danger, comedy and tragedy, love and loss, politics, and even a Puccini opera as a leitmotiffor the plot. Loosely based on the historical figures of Morris Cohen and Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the novel is describes as “part historical novel, part steampunk opera and part otherworldly Western.”

For Lila Sinclair, life at home in the Kootenays offered little opportunity for adventure, let alone love; Lila’s first brush with romance, a kiss from a handsome, pacifist Doukhobor boy, was soon thwarted by her father’s prejudice and her lover’s strict religion. When her brothers return from the war and Lila is no longer needed in the fruit business, she decides to find work as a teacher but doesn’t last a year. The narrative takes us along Lila’s pilgrimage as she leaves her family home in the orchards of Nelson and boards a midnight ship to a small mining town on the Pacific coast, where she plans to resurrect the newspaper her dead uncle bequeathed to her.

At first glance, the town of Black Mountain doesn’t present much that would attract someone seeking a wider world: “The stink of it was up my nose, a mix of outhouse and crushed barnacles and rotten eggs.” The town is damp, dark, dirty, and cloistered, and the people wear miner’s helmets with lights strapped on because, as the boat’s navigator explains, “Every hour that calls itself day is dusk in Black Mountain.” Soon after her arrival Lila is blinded by black flies, hits a post, and is knocked unconscious. In the doctor’s office she meets her future business partner, Morris Cohen, who is lying beside her with leeches covering his eyes. The cast of characters is colourful. Known as Two-Gun and referring to himself as “Maurice de Montréal,” Cohen, is a charming and duplicitous character with a checkered past and a questionable future. Vincent Cruz, a handsome Chinese man with a braided queue of black hair, helps her with the paper but is not as responsive to her as she wishes. Dr. Sun Yat–sen, the mysterious leader, is always awaited, but seen only from a distance. There are the flamboyant Women of the Saloon, the self-appointed Sherriff, Silver Evans, and his “filthy scum of a deputy” who gets satisfaction from piercing a prostitute’s nipple with a fish hook, and the stylish dressmaker who drapes Lila in midnight blue silk to prepare her for a night at the opera. On the other side of the mountain is Lousetown, where the Chinese live and keep to themselves. In the thick of the dank mist they’ve constructed (early versions of) solar dishes to run the newspaper and grow tomatoes, asparagus, and roses. In contrast to Black Mountain, Lousetown appears to be a functioning community, but the residents suffer at the hands of those who employ and control them. As Dr. Sun Yat-sen notes in his famous speech: “The British treat nations as the silkworm farmer treats his worms; as long as they produce silk, he cares for them; when they stop, he sets them on fire, he feeds them to the fish.”

There’s always news for Lila to print: the striking Women of the Saloon bearing placards emblazoned with red lips and dollar signs; the deformed fish appearing in the creek; the possibility of diamonds being found at the mine. There are also challenges: threats from the mine owner, incidents with the vile deputy, a chase by enormous, putrid-smelling wild pigs causing an accident that requires her to stitch up her own leg with a needle and thread. Fortunately she has her ever-ready flask of whisky for cleansing and courage. The travelling musicians of the La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the West) add texture and sentiments that resonate for Lila. Particularly poignant is Ch’ella mi Creda, the aria in which the handsome outlaw asks others to tell the woman he loves that he escaped and is on the road to redemption.

This is a swashbuckling tale, full of mysterious twists and turns, a page-turner, but sometimes the mysteries become so confusing the reader has to turn back again to figure out just what’s happening. Hutton’s prose is spare, muscular, but the narrative is dense with overlapping themes and events that are difficult to follow, particularly with the dialogue lacking quotation marks. Lila’s story has many characteristics of a bildungsroman: a heroine falling out with her family, leaving home, searching for purpose, overcoming challenges and failures, and, finally, experiencing an epiphany. After struggles with her horrendous surroundings, the newspaper, her double-dealing partner and disappearing lover, she realizes she has a choice: “…a choice very different from deciding to teach, to prove I could provide for myself and to thumb my nose at another’s beliefs, or to take on a business that was someone else’s creation, and inherit all its problems, or especially to take on a dubious deal to save such a business. No, this time it was a choice that was mine alone to take.”

Unlike the classic bildungsromanhowever, Lila doesn’t choose to return to conventional society and accept its rules and values. Instead she literally plunges into new territory, diving into the ocean, climbing a rope ladder to a ship bound for China, uncaring what her soaked chemise will reveal: “Well, let the passengers and crew see me, then, let the whole blasted world see me…I had lived long enough in small towns on the edge of nowhere to know what it was to want more.” Surely this ending predicts a sequel. Lila has said more than once that she wants to be seen, and the reader is left wishing to see her again.

*The Malahat Review, established in 1967, is among Canada’s leading literary journals. Published quarterly, it features contemporary Canadian and international works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction as well as reviews of recently published Canadian poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.

Spring, 2014

red girl rat boy

Cynthia FloodRed Girl, Rat Boy

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
The Malahat Review *

A few years ago, I reviewed Cynthia Flood’s The English Stories, describing her writing as intelligent, poignant, engaging, and deserving of further distinction. I spoke of “an echo of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, in the steady voice and sharp eye of the main narrator.” Red Girl, Rat Boy is even more intriguing, though more challenging to read and much harder to review. Each story requires a second reading in order to figure out what’s going on, a third to understand what it means. The stories are diverse and peculiar, elliptical and compressed, with no linkage between them other than the spare, sure skill of the writer. Most writers of short fiction use a brief time frame, but Flood’s stories take place over many years, some jumping back and forth in time. As a result, we must pay close attention and be aware of our own perspective in the process. We feel we are situated inside the mind of the characters—but where are we and when?

“Such Language” unwinds retrospectively after the opening sentence: “Fuck you, the message tape said one October day.” Although the story takes place over twenty years, Flood’s compressed style has us hurtling relentlessly and inevitably from that first anonymous message to the revelation that Laura’s husband is having an affair and that it is her aged mother who has spread a handkerchief over the telephone to send the “first foul message.” Laura’s book club members regularly uncork wine and relate their own narratives about breastfeeding or weaning, ungrateful children, unprincipled colleagues, carpal tunnel and candida, debt and renos. Lauren would prefer to stay with the novels and, in what she sees as a planned intervention, they all accuse her of “acting superior,” “holding back,” being “willfully blind,” and “emotionally unavailable.” There are many ways of approaching this story, one of which includes the books Lauren’s club takes up—Man DescendingHome TruthsA Jest of GodThe Progress of Love—and the relation between truth and fiction, between memoir, storytelling, and novels. Lauren’s mother questions the value of reading fiction: “imaginary people do things and do things, then it’s over. From biography, memoir, one can learn.” Lauren learns from all of these and her final presentation to her book club is her mother’s story, “her dossier of old age and frailty.”

In “To be Queen,” the narrator, Kenny, tries to explain to his lover, an only child, what it’s like to have siblings. “Siblings know the smell of each other’s poo,” is the sprightly opening line, but quickly the story springs into a portrait of a dysfunctional family, not through explication but exposition. We are thrust into Kenny’s sketches of childhood episodes that are more visual and sensory than verbal: “Under a fence and over another (not allowed), oh oh suck poor pricked thumbs, pick a flower for each finger and count to be sure. Mrs. Coming! Through the hedge, along the alley (forbidden, cars) round to the front gate…” Through forty years, we experience the lives of the three siblings “plus one missing,” who died before Kenny was born. There are no photographs of her in the family album. Kenny tries to ask “the Annie-question.” Coral names a doll Annie and makes her die, burying her in the garden. Will leaves home. What is it to be queen? There are few references to queens: pieces in chess games, Coral, as a teenager, cutting her foot with a paring knife in order to be “queen for a day in a clique.” Kenny says “Mum appeared the powerful queen and Dad the king, his moves so limited.” But the most striking image is at the end of the story when, after her death, the children find a black and white photograph of their mother as a young woman wearing a daisy crown and holding the baby Annie, the central character in this story, the real queen perhaps, making her first appearance.

For me, the most chilling story in this collection, “Care,” is a poignant portrait of the way both residents and aides are mistreated, disrespected, and dehumanized in care facilities. There’s dark humour and deep humanity in the antics of some of the residents but, with the ghastly trolleys of sanitizers and wipes and the grisly menus alongside the random negligence and sadism, life in this setting is pretty grim. In the final story, “The Hunter,” we are at times in the minds of each of three characters: a grow-op manager, an exquisitely beautiful leopard, and a social worker. The final line feels like the impact of Flood’s own sure aim: “Pale gold eyes met the hunter, who shot her precisely between them.”

Flood is a master of doing more with less. There are no wasted words, yet each story has a huge expanse and a high ceiling. A lot more is happening than immediately meets the eye, but her intention is exact and accurate. After each re-reading, I see differently and am reminded how John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, argues that seeing comes before words and that when we see “we are reading the language of images.” Flood, in scant and careful images, places us in stories that require us to see and to think about perspective, about where we are situated, what it is we see, and what to make of it.

*The Malahat Review, established in 1967, is among Canada’s leading literary journals. Published quarterly, it features contemporary Canadian and international works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction as well as reviews of recently published Canadian poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.


Mad Hope

Heather Birrell

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
Event Magazine

On the cover of Heather Birrell’s Mad Hope, Annabel Lyon says this ‘gorgeously written’ collection belongs ‘in the short story pantheon with Alice Munro, Lisa Moore and Zsuzsi Gartner.’ That placement makes some sense. Birrell has Munro’s clear photographic eye combined with Moore’s graceful narrative and Gartner’s quirky humour. These stories explore the broad themes of life and love, family, friendship, betrayal and death, but Birrell’s settings and situations are specific and peculiar, and her voice is precise and authentic. From a Canadian classroom to an Ecuadorian jungle, she examines human behaviour in its most mundane or macabre extremes, always with a poignancy that creates reader empathy.

In ‘Frogs,’ Naadiya, a Somali Muslim girl, approaches her science teacher to ask for help in terminating her pregnancy. Her teacher, formerly a doctor in Ceauşescu’s pronatalist regime, agrees to help the young woman. The story circles around the helplessness Vasile felt before escaping from Romania and coming to Canada, the victimization of women under political, religious or patriarchal domination, and the casual exploitation of vulnerable creatures. He thinks of recent conversations with his daughter who accuses him of having been complicit in Ceauşescu’s schemes, and recalls his wife’s courage in procuring an illegal abortion in Romania, going to jail while refusing to give the name of the woman who assisted her.

As a teacher, Vasile leads his students through the dissections of frogs ‘as quickly and clinically as possible,’ and in response to his daughter’s accusations, he acknowledges that the frogs most of all rep[1]resent the horror, pain and guilt of his past in Romania: ‘…more than anything, I remember the frogs. I dream them in their many incarnations and contortions. I weep for them the way I cannot for the women, for the babies born half-formed or badly loved.’ The frogs, imported in ‘droves,’ were injected with the women’s urine to test for pregnancy. ‘[T]he beauty was that the frog[s] remained alive and could be used again.’ Their fortitude meant their enslavement; ultimately, the frogs were ‘worked… to death.’ The image of those tortured creatures resonates throughout these stories. Children and adults alike witness murder, suicide, the sudden deaths of friends and family, yet survive and endure. ‘The heart is pretty central,’ Vasile instructs his biology students as they dissect their frogs, and this statement describes Vasile’s response to Naadiya as well as Birrell’s approach to the people in her stories. The frog image on the book’s cover is iconic in relation to pregnancy, vulnerability and choices about life and death.

The question of pregnancy, seeking it or terminating it, is the focus of other stories. ‘No One Else Really Wants to Listen’ takes place in an online chat group where expectant mothers share stories, opinions and advice. The pro-life and pro-choice arguments are trotted out in surprisingly articulate accounts (unlikely, perhaps, in an actual chat group), which illustrate the intense emotions, hopes, dis[1]appointments, blame and anger that so often colour judgment in what is an always intensely complicated and usually unresolved discussion. Sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-breaking, the voices are vital and persuasive. Both the genuinely charitable and coldly inhumane responses are adroitly presented, illustrating the topic’s complexity.

In ‘Wanted Children,’ a childless couple struggles with disappointment and despair after failed attempts to conceive followed by a pregnancy that ends in miscarriage. Beth sees strollers as ‘little buggies of anguish’ and wants to ‘spray-paint their protective sides, slash their UV-blocking visors.’ Her husband proposes they go on a trip to Cuyabeno National Park in the Amazon where Beth encounters and longs for a village girl’s nameless child. She inquires about the possibility of taking her home but is rejected. She wonders why people’s wounds can’t match up and notes ‘how rarely people’s plans and yearnings find their proper, perfect form.’

Despite desperate circumstances and terrible timing, her people usually find ways to cope. In ‘My Friend Taisie,’ Thomas supports his friend Taisie through pregnancy and childbirth as a way of dealing with the suicide of his partner. Taisie remarks, ‘Just living, it can be an accomplishment, can’t it?’ In the last story of this collection, ‘Impossible to Die in Your Dreams,’ the setting is a wedding with the story told through the bride’s sister and grandmother’s recalling a lifetime of memories involving abuse, betrayal and disappointment. The overall tone of the story, however, is hopeful, even joyful, concluding with the bride placing her bouquet on her grandmother’s lap, a friend telling an off-key joke and the grandmother laughing and knowing in her heart that ‘timing or no, this is good.’



Dorothy Speak

Reviewed by Carol Matthews
Event Magazine

The book jacket for Dorothy Speak’s self-published Reconciliation also compares her storytelling to that of Alice Munro as well as Joyce Carol Oates. Like Birrell, Speak covers the territory of family, marriage and friendship, but her perspective is very different. Highlighting the minutiae of daily activities, she relentlessly reveals the pettiness and self-absorption of her characters and their failure both to live up to their own potential and to form good relationships with their partners, friends or children. It is difficult to like any of these people, yet Speak brings the reader inside their heads and hearts. She forces readers to recognize circumstances and impulses that shape her characters’ unfortunate choices and lack of action—all of which lead to inevitably tragic outcomes. As outlandish as many of the betrayals and infidelities may be, the stories are told with accuracy of description and detail that make them believable.

In ‘The Opposite of Truth,’ Benta meets intermittently with her cancer-ridden friend Lourdes, and the two exchange insults about their attitudes towards wigs versus hats for cancer victims. Lourdes, who has slept with Benta’s ex-husband, takes up with her friend’s current lover, causing Benta to spray-paint obscenities on the man’s car and then make an appointment to see, and perhaps seduce, Lourdes’s healer. The narrator tells us, ‘The reason their friendship has endured is that they’ve always felt free to tell each other the opposite of the truth.’ Like most relationships in these stories, this friendship consists of entertaining dialogue and considerable drama but lacks any depth of compassion or empathy.

Dark undertones lurk in all these stories. ‘A Penny to Save’ starts with ‘a queer feeling in the room’ when the father lifts his five-year old daughter from the table and threatens to smear butter on her belly. Later, outside the home, the father’s friend lures the girl into sexual foreplay while in the background her brother practices his yoyo to the steady incantation of nursery rhymes.

In the final story, ‘The Prime of His Life,’ 65-year-old Purdy, who has devoted his life to indulging his self-absorbed wife Madonna, caters to her dying wishes. Meanwhile, their son Winslow, after a lifetime of abuse and neglect, refuses to see his mother. Purdy brings Madonna designer clothes from the extensive wardrobe she has purchased through years of frenzied spending and perpetuates the ‘charade’ that she is not a patient in a terminal care ward. She shrinks to a grotesque caricature of herself: ‘Her earlobes drooped under the weight of heavy costume jewellery…. On her shrunken feet, her shoes floated.’ Her shakily applied lipstick, rouge and mascara have ‘a burlesque effect.’ She ‘stood out like a Christmas tree. It was what she wanted. She needed to be noticed.’ Winslow refuses to go to his mother’s funeral and sums her up as a ‘fourteen-carat phoney.’ Purdy ultimately realizes that it was a sin to have been so enamoured of his vain wife that he has ignored and failed his son. He concludes that he ‘had displayed an egregious lack.’

One way or another, most of the people in this collection—narcissistic, self-serving, exploitive or merely foolish—display an egregious lack. Yet Speak’s exquisite attention to the bleak, painful details of their lives leaves the reader wishing that there could be some kind of deliverance or, as the book’s title suggests, reconciliation.

With an echo of Margaret Atwood, whose blurb on the back of the book describes Speak as ‘a wonderful new short story writer,’ two of these stories suggest that hope may be found not through human interaction but in the natural environment. ‘Authenticity’ concludes, ‘The light thrown off the lake is transcendent, devastating, redemptive,’ and the final sentence in ‘Surcease of Surrow’ is ‘The river’s steadfastness, its neutrality, its senseless beauty strengthened and soothed her.’ Albeit remote, there is some sense of hope here. Any Canadian woman who writes short stories is likely to be compared to Alice Munro, but Munro is in a class of her own. Nonetheless, these two books contain good stories, carefully written, that describe recognizable and moving human portraits and interactions. Birrell’s writing is more powerfully engaging than Speak’s, but both writers have produced stimulating short-story collections that merit attention.