The Places We Were

Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

I dipped into these two extraordinary memoirs while traveling between Regina and Toronto this fall. Each is the fruit of Canada Council and provincial arts board grants, and while the tone and tenor of each is distinct—from west coast to east coast—they share themes of permanence, passages, and complicated love. Alternating between time periods in the authors’ lives, they provide short chapters focusing on recurring images, and employ captivating narrative techniques such as excerpts from letters, lists, poems, photographs, quotations. At the same time, they both dive deeply into the commonality of human life and the homes in which we live. Houses are renovated, crumble or burn, are sold to others, and the recurring image is ultimately rooted in that other house—the mortal flesh we inhabit. Yet another Canadian reflection on land, nature, the unsettled settler might easily become saccharine, but miraculously does not in the hands of these nimble artists.


How does one make sense of the mystery of appearance and disappearance, of birth and death, and of time’s passage? Peter Gabriel’s “Grab your things. I’ve come to take you home” (Burke 30) is the theme song of these brilliant pieces of life writing. The tortoise, who can retire to its shell, “at home in itself” (Munro 19), is another image that gains significance. I devoured Jane Munro’s Open Every Window in short bites between departure lounges and waiting areas, savouring every morsel. It yokes Indian philosophy and contemporary Canadian life, incorporating several of Munro’s travels to South Asia before, during, and after her partner’s illness. During these travels, she picks up the thread of cyclical nature, opening with the quotation that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”  Munro’s memoir is in seven parts, and the ultimate section is a kind of revolving door—flying west, traveling east, dipping into the past of the house fire that takes her mother’s life, romantic relationships, children and grandchildren, and the inexorable loss of her husband to Alzheimer’s. “My life—my marriage. My home,” she writes near the beginning of the book (17). Living on the west coast of Canada, she alternates between depictions of forests and rocky shorelines and supernatural apparitions, interlacing transcriptions of her father’s letters from the 1940s, lists, and dialogues. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the attempt to see through the perspective of her husband in “Who is the Seer and Who the Seen?” When Bob recalls the loss of his own family members, the simplicity of his statement “[e]ven though you are familiar with losing people, it’s alarming” reminds us of that existential mystery: “Terrifying,” states Bob, “He’s here, and then—poof! . . .  He’s gone” (215).


Kelly Jo Burke’s Wreck is an often-bipolar—or multi-polar—exploration touching on similar mysteries in family relationships; it is darkly comedic too. No pretensions in this funded project.  I was delighted to discover, untangling the dense wreck of “wreckage,” “being a wreck,” and repeatedly “wrecking” the illusory perfection of our lives. I chuckled aloud reading her recounting the seminal Canada Council grant proposal—down to the nitty-gritty deciphering of envelope thickness—and chain of correspondence that compels her return to Maine and the home of her grandparents. Burke’s wit is self-deprecating and often playful in its parody of state-funded art; it begins with an “About the Author” that discloses her compulsive lying even while providing footnotes and photographs as a nod to academia, and yet its core is raw honesty, pathos, grief, and deep love for her family of origin, and the family she has helped create with Ian. Eccentric elements include the voice of “Teen” [her grandmother Ernestine] in her head, the strained relationship with her grandfather, being thwarted in her attempt to return to “her rock,” and even the reflection on alternate titles such as “At the Lighthouse”—a “shout out to Virginia Woolf” (21). Like Munro, she alternates between the early 1960s of her childhood, the 1990s, and the recent return to what is now “Gabrielle’s house” for her writing project.


Both memoirs, then, use a variety of narrative techniques to reflect on the places we live—that bear our imprint—and the bodies we inhabit. Burke’s is more introspective, with family members described as larger-than-life characters in some sections; Munro, on the other side, extends her perspective into the region of the transcendent soul reflective of her yoga practice and interest in Indian culture. In the end, though, the fear of institutionalization—of Bob’s resistance to home care and Burke’s grandfather’s fear of hospitals—echo paradoxical longing for both roots and liberation. As Burke notes, “Show me contentment . . . and I’ll poke it over. Point at the nasty that waits underneath. Gifts are for losing. Love’s a landmine step” (55). It is truly a pleasure to luxuriate in the presence of two accomplished writers, both humble enough to expose their insecurities and fears. These memoirs are not-so-sentimental journeys that are simultaneously sweet and spicy.

This review “The Places We Were” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 13 Jun. 2022. Web.

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