Stories of the Soul

Kathleen Winter offers thirteen stories in her new collection. Three are linked to introduce Marianne, a young woman who has decamped to a hamlet on the Newfoundland coast, planning to write. She is escaping “an apartment that reeked of methane—the window had looked out on a transformer tower.” But the writing ambitions are unimportant. Instead Marianne acquires a deep understanding of the management of loss. Through her interactions with the residents she learns how to deal with what there is—fearlessly. First she meets Ezekiel who teaches her how to feed her wood stove. “The shavings curled long and white, and when you made seven or eight on both sides of a stick, then the split looked lovely, tendrils arching off it like a Japanese lantern.” It is a simple story but through the patient detail in Winter’s writing we too feel, “the sun in the wood,” and the glory of a chimney smoking white on a dark night.

In Part II of her collection, Winter gives us ten separate stories, which somehow combine into a gentle meditation on the power and fragility of dreams. In the haunting first story, Kerry, a balding and middle aged man remembers the beauty his younger self found in music. “There was land in American songs, there were wildwood flowers and bright mornings.. . .” He remembers also a powerful current of freedom embodied in an exotic, cross-dressing youth, with whom he falls a little in love. Things go wrong, of course; the boy is forced to move away and Kerry’s life returns to the well-trodden path. But we leave him, humming an Oscar Hammerstein song “right through to the end” and know that his early moment of grace remains the kernel of his later life. In another deeply surprising story a street person finds his feet by learning flamenco dance—performing with nails embedded in cheap Italians shoes for sound effects and a flat-brimmed black straw hat for looks. He is knocked back down by circumstance, but not before his unlikely joy has infiltrated the life of a passer by. Winter’s readers also may feel a light benediction, an uptick in their own courage, openness, and humility from their immersion in these delicate stories.

  1. D Miller’s All Saints is a novel-length book built from linked stories of ten people, tenuously connected over decades to each other and to a languishing Anglican parish in Vancouver. The book opens with Garth building a refuge in his basement for his army buddy, Barney. Since Barney has not been in touch for decades, a certain private craziness is introduced immediately. Next we meet Simon the priest of All Saints confessing to a woman’s sweater draped over a chair back. He has withheld the garment from its owner, Kelly, to whom he is secretly attracted. Miller seems freed by the discrete story format to imagine wild and complexly interwoven stories for the individuals of the parish. We meet a child poisoner and the masochistic victim of a brutal rape. We meet a misfit who creates a Lord of the Flies-caliber disaster for himself, involving dark forests, broken eye glasses, feces, and blood soaked suicide. Also present are characters threatened by serious illness and others whose suppressed homoerotic impulses have derailed their lives.

These are attention-grabbing scenarios but Miller has set herself some difficult tasks. Her characters are fundamentally trapped and alone. They interact mostly with their own minds and the author is often reduced to conveying complicated back stories through long first-person flashbacks. Sometimes Miller makes it work. The story of Alice, confined for decades in a hospital for the criminally insane for poisoning her grade two class with digoxin-laced lemonade, is carried by Alice’s cold, clever letters to Simon, the parish priest who has offered to be her pen pal. In another story Emily survives the indignities of aphasia as she recovers from a stroke by reliving her childhood interaction with a horse that understood and was faithful to her. But in the end Miller struggles with the structure she has chosen. The high drama of her scenarios sucks up all the oxygen so that we do not get what the best short stories can provide: the extraction of an essence, a disclosure of character by momentary circumstance. Miller also leaves herself little chance to develop the profound theme of a fragile and exhausted church confronting the deep miseries of private lives, which the title seems to promise. Perhaps the conventional novel format would have taken her there.

This review “Stories of the Soul” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 139-40.

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