- Raymond Fraser (Author)
The Grumpy Man. Matthew (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Alex Hawley (Author)
The Old Familiar. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jancis M. Andrews (Author)
Walking on Water. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane
All three of these collections squeeze the most piercingly-high notes from the most unlikely characters and circumstances; through their recurring focus on so-called “low life,” they exact humour, pathos, and glimpses of truth. While geographical locations and characters vary, the creative energy seldom wanes.
Jancis Andrews is a writer born in England, but now established on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. Her own story is fascinating, including adolescent escape from an abusive family, military and domestic service, and abandonment by her husband in Vancouver. In 1992, she published her first collection of short fiction titled Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair, and Walking on Water is her second collection. Beginning with the autobiographical “Country of Evil,” this deceptively-small book holds a breadth of stories with lines that resonate, and images that remain with the reader long after the book is closed.
Each of the ten stories focuses on a distinct character and challenge, and many of these narratives suggest messiness in human relationship and interaction, as well as a reclaiming of spirit. For instance, in “Big Girl,” the adolescent main character grapples with her own ambivalent relationship to her aunt and her changing body; in “Gift for Michael Mooney,” repressed anger and fear in a salesman finds its avatar in a seahorse he glimpses from the deck of a ferry—“a celebration of pearl and silver in the moonlight . . . weaving and diving between the fog patches, light streaming from its body and tail”; in “Johnny, I Hardly Knew You,” the chance reunion of a man with a former neighbour jogs his failing memory encapsulated in the song, described as “a lament for things lost and gone forever.” Some stories are less successful in articulating the both strange and wondrous results of disappointment, anger, grief, and sadness: for instance, “Moon Calf” and “Balancing” depict circumstances with great potential, fizzle out by the endings.
Most haunting are stories such as “The Hour of Miss Frith” and the title story, “Walking on Water,” which portray elderly female characters struggling to reclaim their dignity in the face of public discredit: Miss Frith is notified that the department store to which she dedicated her life is being taken over by a major corporate entity, and decides to go down fighting; Lucy Gustavson is passed over as soloist at the royal visit to her life-long church, and finds herself singing “full-throated . . . reaching for one triumphant note before soaring to another” in the deserted mountains near her home. These endings are Andrews’s forte, from Miss Frith’s descent on the store’s elevator to Michael Mooney gripping onto the mane of the seahorse.
The short stories collected in Alix Hawley’s The Old Familiar are akin to those of Andrews in their dredging of the most unlikely characters and situations for moments of revelation and atonement. This is Hawley’s first collection, and it demonstrates a deft handling of narrative, image, point-of-view, and dialogue. The variety of perspectives itself is impressive: from the second-person narration in “Chemical Wedding” to the third-person narration in “They Call Her Lovely Rita.” Similarly, Hawley does not shy away from a challenging character or plot, and her opening sentences are as gripping as Andrews’s closing lines. For instance, “They Call Her Lovely Rita” begins with the two sentence catch—“Adultery. He dreamed of it chronically, and he wasn’t even married.” Situations include the dabbling in incest of a brother and sister, while their grandmother leaves them notes stating “I know what you’re going to do” and “Bad.”
Again, these stories are unpretentious and oddly redemptive. The disastrous dinner party in “Chemical Wedding” concludes with the main character’s link to a rebellious teenage daughter; “Yes, the People are Nice” describes the awe on the faces of nursing-home residents as they are taken to see the Christmas lights; even the difficult grandmother, almost a grotesque figure, is allowed dignity and respect as the narrator tells us “more about her.” “Have You Seen the Ghost of John” shifts our focus from elderly, infirm, and working-class characters to the diverse “tweens” and their counsellors at a summer camp. The imaginative range of Hawley’s writing is remarkable, and inspires our enthusiasm for the birth of her next collection. While Hawley’s academic specialization is nineteenth-century and interdisciplinary studies—she completed her doctorate at University of British Columbia and now teaches at Okanagan College—her eclectic interests and fascination with backgrounds of big pictures shines through in surprising, sometimesalarming, but often uplifting narratives.
While both Hawley and Andrews are fairly new to the literary scene, Raymond Fraser enjoys the reputation of a short-listing for the Governor Generals Award for Fiction, the Lieutenant-Governor’s award for High Achievement in English-Language Literary Arts in New Brunswick, and numerous publications in various genres. His rich life experience, including time spent in Montreal, infuses his writing in this collection, The Grumpy Man. The book itself defies generic definition, incorporating short stories organized in mini-collections—The Carnival, The Grumpy Man, The Commissionaire, The Sage, and the Playboy—and the novella The Quebec Prison. The stories focus on so-called “low-life” though many of the main characters, unlike Hawley’s, appear semi-autobiographical: like Fraser himself, these characters are male, university-educated and literate. They also often struggle with addiction, loneliness, and destitution. These first-person narrators are unsympathetic, avoiding intimacy and connection in both friendships and romantic relationships. For instance, “Wrong Side of the Street” focuses on a student who almost lands in jail after being arrested for walking on the wrong side of the road; he refuses to pay the fine because he is convinced of his innocence, but finally relents when he is taken to see the prison and imagines living there. Fraser has a finely-tuned ear for verbal irony and terseness that is oddly compelling. The Quebec Prison skillfully describes the way the narrator spends his 14 days in prison for putting sugar in gas tanks, with such highlights as the discovery of library books.
While these stories are well-crafted and insightful, they do not resonate as strongly with the reader as the stories of Hawley and Andrews: Keith Garebian has described Fraser as “a roaring tide battering the literary shore,” but the energy seems to waver a bit through this book. In fact, the most engaging story is the anecdote explaining a cure for depression, in which the celebrity being interviewed explains that one can conquer this condition by flying to Paris and staying in an expensive hotel room for two weeks. The narrative, replete with exclamation marks, but balanced with the ironic commentary and footnotes of the narrator, evokes both laughter and insight: “You can imagine the reaction this produced, the vast numbers of people out there in TV land who were hiding in their beds or dragging themselves to the bathroom for another pill or sitting in rented rooms contemplating suicide. Some no doubt were engaged in fastening the rope about their necks when they heard this news and paused before kicking over the chair.” It is this gift for drawing humour and redemption out of “low life” and low notes—of inspiring empathy with the most outrageous characters and situations—that mark all three remarkable books.
- To Wear or Not to Wear a Wedding Dress by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: My Wedding Dress by Anne Laurel Carter and Susan Whelehan
- Three Books of Stories by J. Russell Perkin
Books reviewed: Between Trains by Barry Callaghan, A Heart in Port by Emily Givner, and A Grave in the Air by Stephen Henighan
- Quêtes féminines by Sylvain Marois
Books reviewed: Le nombril des aveugles by François Landry, Mademoiselle J.-J. by Louise Turcot, and Zig-Zag by Laurette Lévy
- Two Budding Talents by R. W. Stedingh
Books reviewed: Pool-Hoppping and Other Stories by Anne Fleming and Comfort Me with Apples by Sara O\'Leary
- Listening to Strangers by Colin Hill
Books reviewed: 13 Ways of Listening to a Stranger: The Best Stories of Keath Fraser by Keath Fraser and The Work of Mercy by Stephen Guppy
MLA: Lane, Dorothy F. High Notes. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 108 - 110)
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