- 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.
- Meetings by Jon Kertzer
Books reviewed: The Almost Meeting and Other Stories by Henry Kreisel and Lola By Night by Norman Ravvin
- Less is More by Robert Amussen
Books reviewed: Country of Cold by Kevin Patterson and Fidelity by Michael Redhill
- The Alchemy of Stories by Maria J. H. Lerena
Books reviewed: The Canadian Short Story: Interpretations by Reingard M. Nischik
- Potential Energy by Joseph Boyden
Books reviewed: Born With A Tooth by Joseph Boyden and Mother Superior by Saleema Nawaz
- Vital Fictions by Dawn Thompson
Books reviewed: Vital Signs: New Women Writers in Canada by Diane Schoemperlen, What's True, Darling by M.A.C. Farrant, and The Wanderer by Phyllis Aronoff and Regine Robin
MLA: Kaufman, Anne. Surviving Memory. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #188 (Spring 2006). (pg. 163 - 163)
***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.