- Byrna Barclay (Author)
Girl At the Window. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Anne Kaufman
Byrna Barclay’s most recent short story collection is suffused with memory and the power of personal history. The nine stories are rooted in Saskatchewan, as all the central characters call or have called it home, but the stories range widely in physical setting from Canada to Europe. Barclay includes snippets of ostensibly historical narrative from the Spanish and Greek Civil Wars, World War II, immigration, and the world of art. This collection, shortlisted for a Saskatchewan Book Award, is ultimately more successful as an interrogation of the effect of memory than as a vehicle for evoking those historical moments.
Many of Barclay’s central characters are women struggling to understand familial relationships. From Becky, in “Misfit,” whose previously unimagined half-brother Joel shows up on her elk-breeding farm, to Phoebe, left behind in “Bride’s Lament,” to care for her terminally ill husband and then her mother while her brother gets an education and then departs for the war, to Ruth, in “Kasja’s Ghost,” whose efforts to understand her mother result in the inheritance of a series of ghostly visions and memories, Barclay portrays women who allow their families pervasive agency in their lives and who often sacrifice dreams for relationships. Her landscapes are evocative and contain some truly memorable images, as in “The White Mountains of Crete,” in which Zoe, returning to her homeland after years of exile in Regina, returns to her family home and long-remembered sky, mountains, sea.
“Girl at the Window,” the title story in the collection, like “Misfit” has soap-opera overtones, built as it is on the physical resemblance of Paula, whose grandmother was a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, to a girl in a Salvador Dali painting. This story was the least satisfying of the collection. It felt both under-developed, as it touched only briefly on a number of ideas that could each have been the heart of a successful and well-developed short story, and over-dramatic, as the notion that strangers on the street would instantly recognize a person’s resemblance to a painting.
The book, too, contains some rather jarring typographical errors that detract from the experience of reading Barclay’s prose, which is clear and well-written. Her focus on characters’ complex engagements with memory, landscape, and family is also engaging. The stories themselves, it seemed to me, are almost outlines for novellas or other longer pieces and the haunting memories each character invokes cry out for further development.
- Images of Selves by Laurie McNeill
Books reviewed: Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums by Martha Langford and The Mirror : A History by Katherine H. Jewett and Sabine Melchior-Bonnet
- More than a Patchwork by Judith Plessis
Books reviewed: Dropped Threads 2: More of What We Aren't Told by Margjorie Anderson and Carol Shields
- How Should We Remember? by Adele Holoch
Books reviewed: A History for the Future: Rewriting Memory and Identity in Quebec by Phyllis Aronoff, Jocelyn Létourneau, and Howard Scott
always reconstructingby Maia Joseph
Books reviewed: Autobiography of Childhood by Sina Queyras
- Pictures, Life, Opinion by Klay Dyer
Books reviewed: The Imperialist by Sara Jeannette Duncan, In the Garden of Charity by Basil King, Stories Subversive: Through the Field with Gloves Off. Short Fiction by Nellie L. McClung by Marilyn J. Davis and Nellie McClung, and The Haliburton Bi-centenary Chaplet by Richard C. Davis
MLA: Kaufman, Anne. Surviving Memory. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #188 (Spring 2006). (pg. 163 - 163)
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