All the Beloved Ghosts. Penguin Random House Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
First Things First: Early and Uncollected Stories. Biblioasis (purchase at Amazon.ca)
In Alison MacLeod’s “The Heart of Denis Noble,” Ella explains to the titular character how nothing “can be passive or static” and be part of a great story, because the “whole cannot be divided”: “it has its own unity.” So it is with All the Beloved Ghosts, a collection of fourteen stories by MacLeod, some of which are semi-autobiographical: each story gently reverberates against the others and lends to their meaning and affective power. Several stories identify political or cultural icons, such as Sylvia Plath, Tony Blair, Princess Diana, and Anton Chekhov, or draw upon MacLeod’s own family history—the opening story, “The Thaw,” being a most startling and evocative example. Straddling fiction and non-fiction, involving incidents and persons that are grounded in both the personal and the historical, the stories showcase MacLeod’s ability to imagine in and around facts, and to challenge our own assumptions about and relationships to such facts.
The narratives also often hover at the crucial juncture between death and life, between mourning and celebration, exploring the vulnerabilities and mysteries of that moment, when one’s life does not flash before one’s eyes, but unfurls in vivid, melancholic, exquisite detail. In “Oscillate Wildly,” for example, Liam recalls on his deathbed that he was “fifteen, lost and winded at the graveside” of his mother, when Abby, his lover, “came keening into the world”; although she could have
recoil[ed] from the bite of him when he goes mad on the booze and the shame of what he hasn’t become[,] [s]he doesn’t turn and run from the rabid thing that curls in his gut and is turning, little by little, into the tumour they will cut from him years too late.
In this and other stories in the collection, MacLeod compassionately delineates human foibles and idiosyncrasies; indeed, her characters are beguiling, compelling readers to tarry at moments of emotional intensity, tenderness, and illumination.
By contrast, Diane Schoemperlen’s collection of stories, First Things First, asserts perspectives that are, at turns, maladroit, severe, derisive, unyielding. The stories, often told from a female perspective that is unique, even eccentric, thus showcase the relentlessness of a singular assertion, of its implacability in relation to others’ narratives and points of view. The characters are often disaffected and estranged from each other, and therefore challenge the potential to reconcile incommensurable perspectives. So it is in, for example, “An Evening in Two Voices,” in which Estelle recounts her experience of an evening and of those who were present in ways that downright contradict the perspective of Doreen, who expostulates, “I was there. I know what really happened. You don’t have to pretend with me.” For these characters, however, pretending is often necessary for survival, to grapple with the cruelties of life and compensate for their vulnerability.
Moments of grace and insight are not the stuff of Schoemperlen’s stories, which are nonetheless skilful and largely well wrought. In “Histories,” for example, the narrator’s insight and experience are withheld. Anne, a photographer, tries to conjure up the life of Effie MacKay; she focuses “far back into the trees” and thinks “This is a photograph of you, woman.” The distance and anonymity are reinforced later when, rather than convey her attempt to record this nineteenth-century woman’s life to her husband over supper, she is ostensibly dismissive, claiming she did “nothing much” that day: “She will tell him eventually,” she reflects, but he will conclude, incorrectly, that “the day had been too unimportant to mention at the time.” Such withholding is, in some ways, a necessary tactic to undermine the power of narrative tropes and clichés that hold characters—and readers—in patterns of expectation that impede new possibilities. Stories such as “Love in the Time of Clichés,” “None of the Above,” “True or False,” and especially “Life Sentences” demonstrate how readers might respond to narratives in stock ways, even as the formulaic structures Schoemperlen offers contradict or challenge those ways and make apparent that truth and experience cannot be so easily rendered. As the narrator of “She Wants to Tell Me” notes, “Nobody wants to admit that truth, like time, can never stand still. It is always a becoming.”