To Paradise or Elsewhere

The 2014 short story collection by Kathy Page, Paradise & Elsewhere, takes readers on fourteen extraordinary journeys. Each story holds a mystery that unfolds for the reader only as it unfolds for the characters, and we are drawn with them from a known world into eerie experiences of premonition, retribution, transformation, and insight.

Page’s characters are drawn quickly but with clarity and immediacy—they are you or I, our children, or our lovers—the merchants we deal with. They include a waitress in the Midwest, a university student, a 19C lighthouse keeper, trekkers in a foreign land, a shape-shifter, and the original residents of a version of Eden.

They are interesting, and we seem to know them easily, but they soon fade as individuals. Their narratives are driven instead by forces beyond the grasp of the characters themselves. With cool authority, Page invites the ancient laws of fate, hubris and retribution to surface in her characters’ lives. Sometimes they perish, and sometimes they understand what they have done and what has happened because of it. Then we are hopeful for them. Sometimes they are left, as we are left, on a sharp edge of understanding.

The genius of this book is the way magic seeps into the stories. It seems so inevitable. Somewhere deep in the ancient part of our brains, there must still be a grasp of the connectedness of all things, of the endless flux of creation and destruction. The thin veneer of human progress and mastery tears away easily and the fates we read of here are frighteningly familiar. The sense of being watched makes us shiver. We are easily unnerved by dark forests and trackless deserts we encounter in these stories. We are shocked by the trickery or weakness of our companions. In these moments it is clear that there is no safety.

So, readers should not expect to step briefly into a Harry Potter world of mysterious empowerment, and step easily out again. The tales speak too directly to us for that. They make for unsettling reading. Our vulnerability is getting ever harder to forget.

The effect of the book is to open new sightlines onto the disasters we are courting by refusing to listen to other voices, by allowing ourselves to be deceived, by never questioning the violence of our ways. Our little victories are clearly temporary and our failures much longer lasting.

Page is never didactic, though. She lets a sense of urgency and foreboding come to us only through the words and actions of her characters. The narrator of one story realizes, “Even the miles of burning desert and thorny scrub that separated us from whatever else there might be were a blessing of sorts, for we sensed that there was an else and an other, and also that we should not rush to meet it.”

In another extraordinarily moving story “We, the Trees,” the reader is confronted with an act of deep heroism that is futile and pathetic and yet somehow also a model for how humans could be. If we could shrug off the certainty of our own importance, perhaps we could awaken in time to sense the workings of the living world and its gifts.

My only disappointment was to find that four of the stories in this book appeared in Page’s 1990 collection As in Music. From such a sharp-eyed observer of our lives and times, I want more stories and fatter books. I want to find more liminal selves shimmering behind the facades on display, and new paths broken in the limitless space leading towards heaven or elsewhere.

As one of her characters says, “A careless or malicious guide can ruin a trip like this, can leave you with nightmares and a very bitter taste in your mouth.” But Page is a gentle guide. The strangely familiar omniscient voice in which she writes seems almost to be speaking to itself. And yet there is no escaping the mirror she places before us. It reflects the close kinship of idealism and greed, of triumph and loss, but it is only showing us what, in fact, deep down, we already know.

It is uncertain what if anything can turn us. We face complex disasters that are implacable, brutal, no one’s fault. The imminence of some sort of cosmic payback is written everywhere, and, as Leonard Cohen put it: “Everybody Knows.” But we can imagine things otherwise. And therefore there is hope, “curled like a bug under a stone,” waiting.

This review “To Paradise or Elsewhere” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 180-81.

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