Imprints of Other People's Histories
- Ann Ireland (Author)
The Instructor. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sandra Birdsell (Author)
The Two-Headed Calf. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Suzanne James
"But how was it possible not to be imprinted by other people’s histories, their secret fears and desires?" challenges the narrator of Sandra Birdsell’s title short story, "The Two-Headed Calf." Having struggled both to encompass and to liberate herself from her mother’s enigmatic past, the history of her even more elusive aunt, Lucille, and the legacy of her immigrant grandparents, Sylvia reluctantly concludes, "Whether we accommodated this inheritance or pushed against it as my mother had, the result was the same. I was my mother’s daughter." Like the haunting image of the two-headed calf in a freak show remembered from childhood, she feels prompted "to do two things at once, flee and stay. Sleep and eat. Laugh and cry." While her grandfather showers her with a tolerant love he was unable to express to his own daughter, urging her to "just be you, ’ her mother, so rebellious in her own youth, ironically warns Sylvia: "Just don’t do it."
Familial relationships, in all their ironic multiplicity and inevitable duplicity, provide a unifying thread within the otherwise diverse collection of stories included in The Two-Headed Calf. Through frequent shifts in perspective, Birdsell explores the gaps in conversation and perception—the misconceptions, misappropriations and unspoken fears and needs of individuals. For example, "A Necessary Treason" shifts between the perspectives of an aging mother and her middle-aged daughter, providing not only glimpses of alternative "takes" on the same conversation and events, but also a rich and complex portrait of a relationship in transition. In "The Man From Mars" the childhood narrator struggles to establish herself in the small Manitoba town to which her parents have mysteriously transplanted her from Mexico, but more crucially, to come to terms with her father and the powerfully disturbing undercurrent of his sexuality. "Disappearances" returns to the theme of family history/ies, but with a reversal: here the aging grandparents struggle to come to terms with the behaviour of their granddaughter who is on trial for the unimaginable deed of beating an elderly couple to death.
The highly compact stories in this collection are frequently disturbing as well as richly suggestive. A fish pulled out of a culvert in the opening scene of "The Ballad of the Sargent Brothers" proves to be "opaque, flesh coloured and strangely shiny ... one of the Morrison twins." The missing fingers of a woman’s lover (ironically, also the husband of a friend) provide an eerily evocative motif in "Phantom Limbs." A politically inspired home invasion leaves the narrator of "Rooms for Rent" howling, "I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what anything means any more. I just don’t know what it means."
As in Birdsell’s previous works (two novels and two short story collections), images of waler, floods and drowning provide a subtext to many of the pieces in this collection. These are complemented by a series of musical motifs and images, from the subtle background of calypso music in "The Two-Headed Calf" and Yo-Yo Ma’s cello playing in "The Midnight Hour" to more overt musical motifs in "The Ballad of the Sargent Brothers" and "I Used to Play Bass in a Band."
The broad range of narrative voice and subject matter in this collection provides the most significant departure from Birdsell’s previous works, and it is a pleasure to watch her diversify, skillfully exploiting a range of perspectives while continuing to locate most of her stories in the Manitoba world that she has so evocatively recreated in the past. I only wish that she had given more scope to her rich and dense title story, allowing it to develop into the novel it cries out to be.
While Birdsell’s characters struggle with familial ghosts, the protagonist of Ann Ireland’s second novel, The Instructor, attempts to liberate herself from the "imprints" of her former instructor, lover and artistic muse who has suddenly resurfaced after an absence of six years. As in her earlier work, A Certain Mr Takahashi (winner of the 1985 Seal First Novel Award), Ireland delves into the mind and experiences of a woman in her mid-twenties (Simone is the successful "fresh young director" of a Summer Arts festival), as she attempts to come to terms with a pivotal earlier experience. In both of her novels the dominant moment of personal history to be revisited involves an influential older man, though in The Instructor this male muse (a musician in the former work, now an artist) is both more effectively, and more disturbingly, developed.
The progress of the love affair between the nineteen-year-old Simone and Otto, her forty-five-year-old art instructor, is eminently predictable: he revels in her adoration and professes to teach her, while discouraging any real innovation or independence on her part; when she ceases to be fresh and new and makes what he perceives to be emotional demands, he becomes restless and impatient; he refuses to commit himself emotionally, begins to be unfaithful to her, and finally sends her away. Yet Ireland does not allow the narrative to slip into bland sentimentalism or easy indignation. Part accusation, part nostalgic indulgence, part farewell and part exorcism, the first person address to Otto which comprises most of the novel skillfully explores the inequities and subtle shifts of power between student and teacher, mentor and disciple, passionate young woman and middle-aged lover. From the perspective of six years of separation, Simone critically replays their relationship, alternately allowing herself to be caught up in relived moments of passion "when everything was expectation and desire," and dispassionately observing Otto (then and now) as he manipulates, and performs for, her and others.
The motif of acting and directing permeates the novel, effectively developing an ironic perspective as the narrator tries on roles, casting and re-casting herself, Otto, and her father, who lurks in the background as her first instructor. In some of the most interesting sequences in the text Simone imaginatively becomes Otto, adopting his phallocentric perspective. In this scene she pictures a reunion with his wife:
In the not-quite-dream I press my fingers effortlessly through the window, as if it were a soapy membrane, and whisk my hand into that gaping neckline to that heart-stopping, silky skin. I know exactly where to linger. Her look is at first startled and she stops her work, and in the not-quite-dream I feel my groin swell and tug against the jeans zipper. Your jeans.
The Instructor is compact and tightly written, and Ireland’s touch is surer here than in her first novel, although she takes fewer formal risks. One hopes that her next work may combine the stylistic maturity she has now achieved with the formal manipulation of point of view which made A Certain Mr Takahashi such a striking first novel.
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MLA: James, Suzanne. Imprints of Other People's Histories. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 138 - 140)
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