- Ann Decter (Author)
Honour. Press Gang Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Ann Copeland (Author)
Season of Apples. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Meeka Walsh (Author)
The Garden of Earthly Intimacies. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lisa Salem-Wiseman
In the photograph which appears on the final page of The Garden of Earthly Intimacies, Meeka Walsh shares the frame with a dog, her hand holding the dog’s face toward the camera, directly beneath her own. This photograph is an appropriate appendix to this collection of stories— Walsh’s first book of fiction—as several of the stories take as their central theme an instinctive, earthly intimacy between women and dogs. The canine protagonist of "A Love Story"—the only Walsh story which, unfortunately, verges on that "cuteness" which she so resolutely avoids in the other "animal stories" in this volume— muses on the bond between women, dogs and the earth:
As he thought about it he’d always preferred women, the big ones or the girls, who didn’t have the sharp, man’s odour and who, while they didn’t smell of milk, smelled of something warm that made him think of the fur on his mother’s belly and of the pink skin where the fur was sparse and how, even though it was in a close space her belly smelled clear and open like the air over a field after rain.
This bond is most effectively explored in the remarkable "Choker," in which the intimacy between the narrator and her Great Dane is essential to the intimacy between
her and her husband, and in which this woman/dog relationship is privileged over the woman/man relationship. The former is a sensual bond, dependent on scent and touch, as she grows to know and "even like" the smell of the dog’s saliva, in contrast with her observation that the odour and wetness which accompany the thrice- weekly washing of her husband’s wool work-socks by hand are "just too personal, too close." While the disintegration of the narrator’s marriage is accorded merely one terse sentence ("I left him, took the dog
and moved out"), her relationship with her canine companion culminates in a touching admission made after the dog’s death: "It’s not the sort of thing you tell anyone, but later, sitting alone on my bed I slipped the dog’s collar over my head and let it rest heavy on my chest, cold against my skin, a few tufts of hair still caught in its loops." This poignant, arresting image is typical of the stories in this collection, in which intimacy—between humans and animals, men and women—is often collapsed into one single evocative phrase or gesture.
In the title story, the image of the train— "focused and singular, like making love"— encapsulates the bond between three individuals travelling together through Germany: "On the move like that we were cheating time and all of us, unavailable to the world, were slippery fish, the sun flecking the colours on our skin, arcing in the light and then gone."
A compartment on a moving train paradoxically manages to both collapse and expand space, and traps people in a suspended intimacy in which friends and strangers alike are captive witnesses to each others’ private "night sounds" and movements, yet are forbidden by an unspoken etiquette to speak of such intimacies in the light of morning. This story—one of the strongest in the collection—ends with an exquisite gesture which speaks eloquently yet succinctly of the beauty, complexity and evanescence of human intimacy: the narrator steps into the bathtub recently used by one of her travelling companions, and revels in the traces of his presence—"fully embodied, palpable, shaped and weighty"—remaining in the room, "filled with his breath and heat."
Walsh’s stories are replete with such gestures. The narrator of "Choker," reflecting on her father’s actions following the death of her dog, says: "He brought me a five- pound bag of frozen jumbo shrimp, something exotic and special and unrelated to my grief. Sometimes my father’s gestures were absolutely right." As are those of all Meeka Walsh’s characters, which, like the father’s gift, manage to be startling and unexpected yet "absolutely right." In "Sand," a woman presses her body into the white sand on a Mexican beach, resulting in a shift in her perception of both herself and the world. In "As for the Chef," a chef at a hotel woos a married guest through a series of exotic offerings, such as "three goose feathers bound together by a long, unbroken curl of orange peel," toast "cut out in the shape of a dove, its feathers drawn in a soft white cheese," and "violets made from butter icing pressed into the glass bottom of an emptied caviar jar." These gifts, while always created from elements found in the kitchen, speak of enchantment and wonder, of secret offerings to a captive princess. Walsh’s language speaks of both the earthly and the otherworldly, the mundane and the magical, and her characters’ gestures, transcending the ordinary, and rendered in sensual, elegant prose, are fresh, subtle, and somehow perfect.
A character in one of the stories in Ann Copeland’s "Season of Apples" makes the observation that "every generation is another country." Borders and boundaries—between countries, between generations, between individuals, between realities—characterize many of the stories in this rather uneven collection. Among the best is the poignant "Another Country," in which Copeland uses the border between Canada and the United States as a metaphor for the failure of communication which separates parents from their children. The collection is framed by two stories which feature characters crossing borders to enter—albeit fleetingly—a world which transcends the ordinary, mundane concerns which characterize the world which they inhabit. In the first, "Mother Love," Alma religiously listens to the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts from the Met, in an attempt to maintain a connection to the potential career of her son, a struggling opera singer in New York City:
She was like a moth fluttering about the distant edges of a world of glamor, a world of passion and color far removed from the softer austerities of Oregon drizzle, benign mountains, and forests. On that great gold-curtained stage, oversized lovers sang of oversized loves. Enough to know it existed.
This story, narrated by Alma’s husband Hamp, who prefers banjos and bluegrass to opera, is an affectionate, loving glimpse into the life of a mother who would do anything for her son. Copeland effectively captures the awkward mix of embarrassment and pride which Hamp feels for his "loveable fluffball" of a wife with her dyed hair and aqua velour hat. The world of opera represents the glamour and excitement which are missing from the lives of those who attend the local college’s music series, and is replaced in the final story, "Season of Apples," with the world of television. In this story, Leora May, who leads a predictable life, free of worry, mishap, or "glamour," secretly tries out for and is chosen to appear in a commercial for "New Brunswick Apples," and discovers, quite by accident, the honesty and value of her own unglamorous life, of which there is "time
yet to savor many a juicy bite."
When Copeland is at her best, as in "Mother Love," "Another Country" and "Season of Apples," the comparisons with Alice Munro seem inevitable. The majority of her characters are "ordinary" people, who live "simple" yet profound lives in small towns and cities. She writes honestly and compassionately about human relationships, and the gulfs between individuals which render such relationships difficult at best. "About Billy," "Getting the Picture," "Parting" and "Crossing the Border" all deserve mention for their touching insight into the awkward negotiation of the bond between parents and children, and the gulf between the past and the present. Unfortunately, weaker stories such as the gratuitously quirky "Why Eat Pot Roast When You Can Sing," the awkwardly predictable "Sin," and the mannered "I Only Teach Comp" fail to live up to the promise of these earlier stories.
After the elegant sensuality of Walsh’s language, and the honest humanity of Copeland’s characters, Ann Decter’s second novel, Honour, is somewhat of a disappointment. Decter has pulled together a veritable shopping list of social issues, including but not limited to gay and lesbian rights, holocaust survival, sexual abuse, Zionism, domestic violence, early feminism, racism, poverty, single parenting, sexual freedom, anglophone/francophone relations, Native/non-Native relations, and midwifery. These are all powerful subjects for a work of fiction, but Decter’s reluctance to narrow her focus results in a text that reminds one of a syllabus for a woman’s studies course, rather than a work of imaginative fiction.
Decter’s characters are practically interchangeable: Jane, completing her master’s degree in "women’s history" and writing the story of her mother’s life; Marie, working in a food co-op and writing a series of poems entitled "The Freewomen’s Chorale" while she applies to study midwifery; Shulamit, an artist-turned-doctor who, in the course of the novel, turns artist again in order to "paint glorious women" as an accompaniment to Marie’s poems. All are lesbians, all are feminists, all have strong relationships with their mothers, all are concerned with women’s history, all are politicized and have strong social consciences. With the possible exception of Shulamit, not one of these characters is convincingly drawn. One senses that they were created, not to engage the reader emotionally with the story, but to serve as mouthpieces and mannequins (or "womanikins," to use Decter’s term) for Decter’s brand of feminist politics. Decter does not allow these women to do or say anything unrelated to the larger social and political context, which results in some very awkward dialogue; her characters have the tendency to muse aloud in stilted, strident monologues. Consider the following response to the news of the closing of a tire plant in St. Catharines:
"Fuckers," Shulamit blurted, "in search of a more desperate workforce. If they can’t find one, they’ll create one. They’ll be back when the unions have been busted and unemployment insurance gutted and environmental protections removed."
Unremarkable, perhaps, until the reader realizes that Shulamit is alone in her car when she utters these words, as is Jane when she says: "For women, undressing has always been the easiest way to get attention." Whether alone or together, these women speak in slogans, catch-phrases, and complaints.
Decter’s earnest didacticism is not limited to her characters’ dialogue. Every thought, feeling and action of her characters is awkwardly manipulated to resonate with current social and political events which involve and concern women, in an apparent attempt to invest every page with social significance. Decter seems to doubt the sufficiency of well-crafted characters, plot and dialogue to engage the reader with the issues, and indulges instead in some rather heavy-handed lecturing. This tendency drains the novel of all emotional power. The murder of Gloria, Shulamit’s former lover and a counsellor at a women’s shelter, is a case in point. The human tragedy of Gloria’s death is lost beneath the layers of social significance; the incident is reduced to an example of sexism, racism, and what "the bastards" will do if given the chance, and allows Decter to add to the roster of political issues which fill the pages of this novel. Unfortunately, Decter fails to engage the reader with the lives behind the issues, ultimately reproducing the media’s reduction of Gloria to a statistic:
Gloria became a ten-second graphic, a random image on the nightly litany of shot his lover of eight years who had left him a week earlier, shot his wife and three children before turning the gun on himself, shot fourteen female engineering students at l’école Polytechnique, ". . . shot Gloria Johnston, 29, counsellor of a local shelter for women."
Decter merely reinforces the depersonalizing effect of this catalogue of facts. Like all other characters in this novel, Gloria’s import lies in her symbolic worth —as a lesbian, as a black woman, as a woman murdered by a man—and not her human strengths and failings.
All of this is held together by a rather flimsy and ultimately disappointing mystery plot which centres on the identity of the seventy-year-old lesbian whose non-fatal roadside stroke is serendipitously witnessed by Shulamit. As the Acknowledgements page tells us, Honour "was born of living in a women’s [sic] world"; this novel is a mere sketch of that world, with the bare outlines taking precedence over subtleties of character, language or emotion.
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Books reviewed: Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1982-2004 by Margaret Atwood
- Overheard in Dreams by Jes Battis
Books reviewed: Fluid Arguments by Nicole Brossard, Susan Rudy, and Ann-Marie Wheeler and No Margins: Writing Canadian Fiction in Lesbian by Nairne Holtz and Catherine Lake
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MLA: Salem-Wiseman, Lisa. Essential Intimacies. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 178 - 181)
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