- Joan Clark (Author)
From a High Thin Wire. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Tamas Dobozy (Author)
Last Notes and Other Stories. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Bill Stenson (Author)
Translating Women. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by J. Russell Perkin
These three collections of short stories, by three very different writers, are all preoccupied with family life. Joan Clark and Tamas Dobozy are also concerned with the problematic relation between a present existence in Ontario or western Canada and a past lived elsewhere, in the Maritimes in Clark’s case and in Hungary in Dobozy’s. Bill Stenson’s work is quite different in effect from the other two, partly because he employs a voice that is closer to oral narration, and partly because a number of his stories are shorter (his collection contains eighteen stories, compared with ten in each of the other books). Stenson’s fiction highlights the oddity of the everyday, especially when viewed from an unexpected perspective.
Clark’s stories were first published in 1982 by NeWest Press, and according to the pub- licity sheet for this new edition from Goose Lane they have been “re-edited . . . from the perspective of a more mature writer.” My not very rigorous comparison of the two versions suggests that the editing was light: the main changes are that the new edition uses several real names for places and institutions, instead of the fictionalized names of the first edition, and that several times Clark has removed a sentence which might be thought to have underscored a theme too obviously.
The first four stories deal with the same character at different stages in her life. The majority of the stories focus on a female protagonist in early middle age. These women resemble each other in significant ways: having grown up in small towns in the Maritimes, daughters of teachers, ministers, or bank managers, they now live in Toronto or Calgary. The first and last stories in the collection deal with a time-honoured theme in Maritime literature, the return home. In “God’s Country,” Emily Prentice returns to Cape Breton to find the local coal mine turned into a tourist attraction and the boy she loved become a man ravaged by illness and prematurely old; in the title story a woman returns home to “the Dairy Centre of the Maritimes” after the sudden death of her mother. At first glance, these are quiet stories about unremarkable people, but in most of them the domestic world is fragile, threatened by violence, illness, or death. Clark’s women view sexuality warily, and the stories generally present them in situations where their husbands or lovers are absent, whether temporarily or for good. A number of the stories end with bodily images or images of self-expression: a woman who has had a bladder operation is suddenly able to urinate again; a girl sees her first period as “a sign from God, a symbol of her salvation”; another woman tells off two strangers who have come to gawk at her mother’s body in the funeral home. In “Territory,” one of the strongest stories in the collection, a neighbourhood turf war begins when a housewife finds that a dog from down the street has dragged garbage onto her property. This leads to problems with a neighbour that escalate horribly, causing her to realize the vulnerability of the suburban world she has tried to believe in and the limits of the naïve faith in human benevolence that her father has bequeathed to her. Clark’s book is a fine achievement and deserving of its new edition.
Translating Women is Bill Stenson’s first book, but many of the stories in it have previously been published in respected literary magazines. They construct a quirky, distinctive fictional world, and at their core are the kinds of tall tales that people tell one another every day. The subjects the stories deal with include a large truck-driving woman who marries a small man, a boy who collects suicide notes, a man who lives in his nephew’s root cellar, a bus driver who loses his passengers, and a man who starts living in a tree in his yard. Sometimes these situations just seem ludicrous, but in the successful stories the characters’ actions cast a disturbing light on what we regard as normal behaviour. A good example of the way they work can be found in the following passage, in which the narrator of the title story is summing up its narrative point of origin: “You can look back on some days that change your life. That’s how I look back on the Saturday I offered to loan Lloyd my car jack. Hindsight’s a bugger sometimes.” Some of the stories are reminiscent of Raymond Carver, but with a more genial and folksy ambience, while in a couple of the very short ones the whimsical imagination resembles John Cheever.
Of the three collections, Dobozy’s Last Notes is the most substantial achievement. His best stories have an imaginative richness that makes them seem like compressed novels, evoking complex worlds. For the most part, the contents of Last Notes can be divided into two categories: stories about the Hungarian immigrant experience and the relation between the Canadian present and the Hungarian past, and stories about the artistic life. In both groups, madness is never far away, and “trauma” is a key word in the book. The stories deal with political and aesthetic issues in a way that sometimes overlaps with expository writing. Such concern with ideas has affinities with the fiction of writers such as Milan Kundera. In “Tales of Hungarian Resistance,” the narrator tries to pin down the truth of his grandfather’s stories about the Hungarian resistance, and in doing so he imaginatively identifies himself with his grandfather’s Nazi interrogator. He must sort out the relation between the stories the grandfather told and his grandmother’s commentary on them. This relation between story and commentary is also the focus of “The Laughing Cat,” where a group of friends meet every Saturday and share stories with one another. In the outstanding “Four Uncles,” a refugee who left Hungary at the start of 1958 after a year in hiding tries to deal with the problematic figures of the uncles who preceded him to Canada. He reflects that “if I’d really known what my uncles were like they would not have been there to guide my steps.” In “The Inert Landscapes of György Ferenc,” an exiled Hungarian painter is unable to find inspiration in the Canadian landscape. All of the stories have first-person narrators, who tend to be either Canadians trying to understand their family past and its Hungarian historical context, or somewhat hapless figures who witness the lives of gifted and mentally troubled friends or relatives. Dobozy likes to begin with a striking sentence that engages the reader, and from which a complex narrative unfolds, moving back and forth in time and out into a network of relationships. For example, the title story begins: “On a cold Monday in the winter of 1995 a nurse unwound the bandages from around Felix Frankenbauer’s head, and the composer walked unassisted for the first time since the accident, staggering to a piano to find he could no longer write musical notation.” At its best, Dobozy’s fiction is very good indeed, and I look forward to reading more of his writing.
- The Questions Posed to Life by Death, A Canon for Three Voices by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: Things that Keep and Do Not Change by Susan Musgrave, What the Living Won't Let Go by Lorna Crozier, and Kaddish for My Father: New and Selected Poems 1970-1999 by Libby Scheier
- Books of Secrets by Dorothy F. Lane
Books reviewed: The Journey Prize Stories: From the Best of Canada's New Writers by James Grainger and Nancy Lee and When She Was Queen: Stories by M. G. Vassanji
- N.A.D., Trez Beans by David Ritchie
Books reviewed: The First World War by Michael Howard and Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1931 by Paul Lerner and Mark S. Micale
- Short Story Studies by Elaine Park
Books reviewed: The Oxford Book of Stories by Canadian Women in English by Rosemary Sullivan and Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by W. H. New
- The More Things Change by Jason Haslam
Books reviewed: 'Terror to Evil-Doers': Prisons and Punishments in Nineteenth-Century Ontario by Peter Oliver and The Convict Lover: A True Story by Merilyn Simonds
MLA: Perkin, J. Russell. Problematic Relations. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #189 (Summer 2006), The Literature of Atlantic Canada. (pg. 155 - 157)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.