Border-Crossing Debuts

  • Latha Viswanathan
    Lingering Tide and Other Stories. TSAR Publications
  • Elise Moser
    Because I Have Loved and Hidden It. Cormorant Books
  • Marlyn Horsdal
    Sweetness from Ashes. Brindle & Glass
Reviewed by Hannah McGregor

Lingering Tide may be Latha Viswanathan’s first collection of short stories, but it nonetheless demonstrates the remarkable range and flexibility of her craft. Viswanathan has mastered the unexpected detail that spreads ripples across the otherwise calm surface of the quotidian. In “Eclipse,” for example, a middle-aged husband addicted to habit and ritual stumbles across his wife watching pornography in the middle of the night, one hand “clutch[ing] at her gut as if the man punched as he thrust.” Through this accidental encounter, she suddenly appears to him more fully: “Why had he not seen this, her agility, spanning continents, skipping oceans?”

Agile ocean skipping could just as easily describe the collection itself, which races from place to place, exploring without fetishizing movement itself. From an elderly man’s return from New Jersey to Bombay with his wife’s ashes, to a recent Laotian immigrant’s recollections of childhood in a Thai refugee camp; from a white American woman’s encounter with the reality of the foreign in Manila, to a Cambodian landmine victim’s fantasy of skipping rope again, “skirt opening and closing like an umbrella, toes stabbing mud”: these stories extend across the spectrum of human experience while maintaining the intimacy that often characterizes well-crafted short fiction. The order of the stories, unfortunately, deemphasizes the collection’s most powerful feature. By opening with eight stories that focus on Indian characters and ending with four that go beyond autoethnography, the collection misses an opportunity to render the perhaps more familiar narratives strange by intermixing the expected with the surprising.

Marlyn Horsdal’s debut novel, Sweetness from Ashes, similarly pushes across borders, be they familial, cultural, or national. The death of a parent brings three siblings from Vancouver to Ontario to meet their estranged relatives, where they discover that they are related by marriage to a Ghanaian family. The novel’s focus on the healing power of crossing boundaries has a clearly stated aim. Horsdal travelled to Ghana with Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) and has since started her own charity: the proceeds from Sweetness from Ashes will help to provide scholarships for girls to attend high school in Kumasi, Ghana. The novel feeds into this humanitarian mission through the repeated metaphor of the global family, culminating in the final chapters when a newly reunited multicultural family comes together to raise money for the same Kumasi high school. The novel’s strongest points are the Ghanaian travel journals of Canadian characters, set in the 1950s and the present. Here, the narrative’s didacticism works in its favour, while the tone of naïve excitement seems appropriate to the narrators’ position. Unfortunately, neither of these narratives drives the novel’s action forward, and both are precipitously dropped in order to return to the present-day action, where the same qualities sit awkwardly.

Because I Have Loved and Hidden It is also Elise Moser’s first novel, but like Viswanathan, Moser is clearly a veteran in her trade. The novel begins with the same premise as Sweetness from Ashes: a family member dies, leaving behind untold histories that the survivors must struggle to negotiate. But Moser makes that struggle visceral through the sharply focalized voice of her protagonist. Julia is forty years old, has just lost her estranged mother, and her lover has gone missing in Morocco. Both of these losses prove themselves redemptive, leading to new or renewed connections with her living family and her lover’s wife.

Watching the frightened, self-enclosed, and deeply analytical Julia gradually make herself vulnerable to the tenderness of those around her—and extend to them compassion in return—is a small but heart-wrenching journey, aided by the finely crafted smallness of Moser’s language. Whereas Viswanathan emphasizes a core of human longing through a dazzling spectrum of settings, Moser expands the interiority of Julia’s narrative outward to radiate through the urban space of Montreal. Staring at the back of a cab driver’s head, it occurs to Julia “that she is sitting in this man’s life”; walking down St. Denis, she thinks of Michel Tremblay and realizes that, “unknowingly, he inhabits her personal geography.” The urban in this novel is anything but anonymous: “everyone has a history, currents running at multiple depths, the movements of which have created the visible surface.” Julia is sensuously physical, and Montreal comes to life as the teeming space through which she moves, as vibrant and complex as those others that Julia gradually comes to know.

This review “Border-Crossing Debuts” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 172-73.

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