Dusk in the Frog Pond and Other Stories. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at Amazon.ca)
At their best, short stories linger suggestively in a reader’s mind, achieving in their condensed format an impact more typical of a full-length novel. The works in Kate Cayley’s collection come close to this ideal, though sadly Rummana Chowdhury’s stories fall short, mired in nostalgia and sentimentality.
The nine works collected in Householders are ambitious and nuanced. The author focuses on sharp, precise details and explores subtle ambiguities. Her protagonists are outsiders, living in a cheap boarding house, a struggling commune in the 1970s, a shoddy mobile home, or even a middle-class suburban neighbourhood. They may face mundane realities like “too many children (four)” at “too young (twenty-eight)” and the indignity of “leaking breasts” (1), or the profound moral ambiguity of deciding whether to burden former family friends with one’s frail, dementia-ridden mother; whether to accept a $20,000 cheque acquired fraudulently in order to support one’s quadriplegic stepson; or whether to help an ailing musician ease into death. These slice-of-life stories reach evocative conclusions without slipping into bland, overarching insights or easy generalizations. As the protagonist of “Doc” declares about his role in the musician Doc Sinclair’s death:
He shouldn’t have trusted me.
Though maybe he knew that. I think he knew that.
Or maybe he should have trusted me. I gave him what he wanted. (66)
Characters and settings resurface seemingly randomly in Cayley’s stories, though collectively these interconnections create a loose narrative web. At times the links are subtle, even illusive, though each story radiates (sometimes at quite a distance) from a “ramshackle commune in Maine” (133). “The Other Kingdom,” “Householders,” and “Piss and Straw” are set (at least in part) on the actual commune, while other stories reference family members or partners who grew up there in the ’70s and ’80s. In one of the subtler links, Doc, the dying musician, is identified as “one of the few people whose songs” the charismatic leader of the Maine commune “arbitrarily permit[s members] to sing” (218).
While most of the stories in Householders adhere to the conventions of realism, “A Beautiful Bare Room” shifts into the realm of speculative fiction. In a futuristic, post-pandemic Earth, twenty-two-year-old Liza survives in an underground bunker about five hours outside of Palo Alto. Brought there by a rather mysterious, wealthy entrepreneur, she finds herself increasingly bored, as well as alienated from her fellow occupants, mostly PhDs and CEOs. The friendliest cohabitant of the bunker, Cara, constantly chats through a headset with her wife, Angeline, who, very oddly, “now exist[s] only as a virtual consciousness” (137), having lost her body to the pandemic. Liza casually notes that, in a fuzzy projection on a screen, Angeline “look[s] a little like Liza herself, if Liza had been taller, thinner, better groomed” (138); then, in a twist reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fictions, Liza slowly recognizes her role in the community: Angeline will inhabit her body. And in another Atwoodian touch, the recognition is presented matter-of-factly, as more intriguing than frightening: Liza “wonder[s] . . . [i]f there would be a moment when she and Angeline would consciously inhabit her body at the same time, and after that, where she would go” (147).
An underlying motif in many of the stories collected in Householders is a cautious fascination with the world of spirituality, and, more specifically, with a life lived in accordance with religious doctrines. Few of Cayley’s characters succeed in maintaining a spiritual life, but several seek an escape from materialism by joining religious communities or fantasizing about following a “holy” path. When Naomi, who appears in three of the nine stories, leaves the commune in Maine to which she has dedicated ten years of her life, she revels in her new-found freedom and independence, yet struggles with a profound sense of loss and purposelessness. Correspondingly, her ten-year-old daughter reacts with wonder to a life of abundance, technological ease and relative luxury on the “outside,” yet misses her commune family and has trouble aligning her two worlds. For many of Cayley’s protagonists, the absence of spirituality contributes to restlessness and displacement.
A number of the central characters in Rummana Chowdhury’s collection, Dusk in the Frog Pond and Other Stories, are also displaced, though their alienation is concrete, stemming from geographical, rather than metaphorical or metaphysical, circumstances. The settings of these stories shift between rural Bangladesh, New York, and Toronto, as Chowdhury explores the everyday lives of a series of strong women living either in their rural homeland or in alienated exile. But, all too predictably, the protagonists either are presented as the wives (and sometimes lovers) of saintly, romanticized men who respect and adore them, or (more commonly) are linked to insensitive boors whose behaviour ranges from uncaring to unforgivably violent and abusive. However forthright and determined these female characters may be, patriarchal values reign and men dominate their lives and experiences.
Admittedly, there is a simple pleasure in allowing Chowdhury’s stories to draw one into nostalgically presented “warm day[s]” in Bangladesh when “light breeze[s]” stir characters’ emotions (57), and to enjoy the charming evocation of romance and lost innocence. Yet as a reader I found myself frustrated, hoping for a more nuanced exploration of the migrant experience, an engagement with the complexities of displacement and alienation. Instead, characterization in Dusk in the Frog Pond and Other Stories lacks depth and subtlety, and the almost invariably uplifting denouements seem at best, anticlimactic—at worst, contrived.
Rummana Chowdhury’s stories will entertain and distract; Kate Cayley’s will impact and linger.
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