Fiction Aslant of Memoir

Reviewed by Emily Ballantyne

There is something incredibly powerful about the minute detailing of the past self in fiction. With both of the books I review here, I found myself mentally checking and admiring their veracity, looking for clues in the text to confirm the rich lived experience of the powerfully perceptive and nuanced narrators. Both Zalika Reid-Benta and Alix Ohlin ground their fictional style in recollection, building trust and familiarity with their readers by carefully crafting a confessional quality in their narrators as they come of age. They document young women’s lives in place, focusing primarily on the ways in which their protagonists construct their own identities as women, and on how their stories are shared through familial relations and against the backdrop of places both present and dislocated.

In Frying Plantain, Reid-Benta adopts the linked short story to detail the perspective of Kara Davis, a Jamaican Canadian adolescent living in the Eglinton West area of Toronto. Each short story poignantly captures a snapshot portrait of Kara’s life as a child and as a teen. Reid-Benta emphasizes the ways in which Kara’s behaviour is informed by her immediate relations. She is caught in the uneasy relationship between her mother and her grandmother, often serving as a pawn to both bring them together and keep them apart. Her mother, Eloise, protectively controls her, monitoring her appearance and actions for any sign of misbehaviour, while her Nana feeds her, assesses her, and through her, keeps tabs on her mother and her husband. Propriety and perception are everything, as Kara struggles to assert her sexuality and belonging with her peers, while at the same time maintaining the decorum required of a good girl in the “Little Jamaica” community to appease her family and maintain their pride and dignity.

In Dual Citizens, narrator Lark Brossard contemplates the distance she feels toward her absent mother, Marianne, and the closeness she feels toward her increasingly estranged sister Robin, across moves that take Lark from Canada to the US and back again. After a childhood of codependency on her sister for companionship and support as latchkey siblings in Montreal, Lark moves away for university, abandoning Robin and reconnecting with her in critical moments in a pattern that details the emotional cost of losing intimacy with the person you hold most dear. Over this series of reconnections, Lark comes to realize that she no longer knows Robin as she once did, tracing the ways in which omission has kept them together while pushing them further apart. The beautiful sadness of the sisters’ bond is achingly compelling and perfectly unresolved.

Both works make use of artist-protagonists who are interested in crafting narrative and questioning the ways in which form and function shape events and inform meaning. Reid-Benta sets the tone in “Pig Head,” where Kara tells and retells the story of seeing a pig’s head in her aunt’s freezer to her elementary school, casting the experience bigger and brighter with each retelling. For Kara, stories are a way to cultivate closeness and belonging, increasing her likeability as her tales grow tall. As Kara moves through high school, stories help elide truth and uncover it. Conjecturing about the emotionally explosive neighbours in “Brandon & Sheila” allows Kara to connect with Eloise about relationships when she can’t bring herself to tell her mother about her first kiss and wants to avoid punishment. In “Faith Community,” the pretence of picking up the car at the auto shop with her grandfather protects Kara from witnessing a raucous fight by eliding the reality of her grandfather’s cheating. Stories are protective and incomplete, both spoken and unspoken. Reid-Benta carefully draws attention to the construction of these stories and how they shift in function in the course of life.

In Dual Citizens, Lark’s job as a film editor also foregrounds the ways in which narrative is generated through the process of construction and elision. The opportunity to be filmed creates an opening for connection between Lark and Marianne. Marianne opens up before the camera and engages in stream-of-consciousness storytelling while Lark safely observes her mother at a distance through the lens. After her mother’s death, Lark processes the loss by obsessively viewing and cutting this same film into a short film called Marianne Forgets, fixating on the emotional shifts between stories, between her mother’s expressions. In this way, Lark seems to reclaim a narrative of her mother in part by silencing her and leaving her captured in wordless expression and emotion. She has no similar process for understanding and making sense of her relationship with Robin. However, Robin’s role in elision, in cutting Lark out of her life at a critical moment, is key to the novel’s complexity. The role of the “cut” in the construction of a narrative—what it emphasizes and what it elides—seems to be the deepest core of Dual Citizens. What is shared, what is left out, when it is revealed, and why are all questions that hum beneath this engrossing novel.

Fiction aslant of memoir instructs us richly in the ways that memory cuts and assembles reality into meaningful story. The self-awareness of both these works of fiction brings us closer to the constructs that shape relationships, protect them, and most importantly, make sense of them for our own needs and interests.

This review “Fiction Aslant of Memoir” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Mar. 2021. Web.

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