by Bill Gaston
Published by House of Anansi Press
256 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
Gargoyle -- a grotesque carved figure ... a spout in the form of a grotesque animal or human figure that projects from a building.
Sometimes a writer comes up with an idea that is truly inspired. With a title like Gargoyles how could the author go wrong? Apparently, as Gaston wrote each of these 12 stories, he sketched a distinct figurehead to look down over it, more for his own inspiration, no doubt, as these renderings did not make it into the book as published. It would be interesting to see those sketches, as inspire him they certainly did. Gargoyles are considered, "The concrete representation of extremes of human emotions," according to the publicity blurb in the advance reading copy I received. Gaston is doubly on to a good thing, then: heightened human emotions generally make for good drama.
That's certainly the case in the first story, Forms in Winter, which sets the theme precisely and concretely in more ways than one. Here is a parent suffering the unimaginable, a bereaved father who is driven to counsel other parents so that they don't make the mistake he and his wife made, with tragic and bizarre consequences. After completing this story, the reader will be able to visualize this particular gargoyle's face all too well, and probably would prefer not to.
In the second title story, an aging, talented artist carries his offbeat, creative vision too far, losing wife, home and mobility in the process. Fortunately he has not lost his son, Richard, who has returned to be with him in this medical emergency. Richard's return probably has got a lot more to do with those gargoyles than is evident. The son remembers how, as a child, his creativity was encouraged:
Even now, decades later, Richard can see every homely, botched detail of his first gargoyle. Whenever he smells cedar, he sees that face emerging, smiling and mean, from the tortured wood. What was frustrating, but then not, was how different it was from what he'd drawn .... Then he learned to see that the gargoyle had always had its own idea of its face and it wasn't going to behave .... Because that's what gargoyles are like.
Thus, in childhood, Richard learned a valuable lesson about creativity's quirks, and began to understand his father's artistic excesses. We readers, on the other hand, begin to prepare ourselves for a book in which undisciplined monsters run amok.
But these decorative roof spouts don't have to be grotesque or frightening; sometimes they can simply represent emotions like prejudice, bigotry or shame. In The Green House, a gentler beast perches atop the beleaguered house to bear witness as a young boy's need to be cool battles guilt and self-awareness.
You just don't know what you're going to get in this 12-pack. The only thing you can be sure of is lashings of extreme emotion as the stories veer from gentle and contemplative to shocking and unsettling. Who is going to forget the funny, good natured and alcoholic British uncle who lets his brother's children bury him in the frigid sands of Vancouver's Long Beach? Or the mocking, sardonic writer who takes his revenge by immortalizing the early morning phone call made by his brother? Or the angry and humiliated son who takes his revenge on his mother and her latest lover in a potentially dangerous but ultimately satisfying way?
Gaston is a clever writer. When the son in "The Night Widow" is told to get lost for a while so his mother can be with her lover, "He hasn't cried and he won't. He knows he's really all she has in her life. He has just realized that she truly doesn't know what will hurt him. That's how naïve and trusting she is -- she thinks he is that mature, that above-it-all. That's how stupid she is -- she thinks he is that smart."
The author of the zany novel, Sointula, published in 2004, as well as several short story collections, a Giller prize nominee, (For Mount Appetite) and an instructor in British Columbia's University of Victoria creative writing department, Gaston's literary reputation justifiably continues to grow. Irreverent, witty, relentless and roguish, he gets right in there, in the process snaffling as many male as female readers.
Gargoyle, our fears, dreams and aspirations made three-dimensional. (Definition -- mine.) | November 2006
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.