Girls Around the House

by M. A. C. Farrant

Published by Polestar

156 pages, 1999

Buy it online

 Read a review of Darwin Alone in the Universe by M.A.C. Farrant





Hair Gel by the Gallon

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


The big green jar of Dippity-Do hair gel on the cover of M. A. C. Farrant's new book of linked short stories is a giveaway: this book will take us where no author has gone before, into the jungle realm of trying to raise three teenagers while keeping a literary career afloat. This is a household where hair gel is bought on sale practically by the gallon, and condoms are brought home from the birth control clinic by an anxious mom trying to keep her kids safe:

I stuff perhaps fifty condoms into my purse, calculating with difficulty how many condoms per young person per week will be needed. This is difficult, because when it comes to the sex lives of our children, I can only guess what is going on. It's one of those taxing concepts like trying to imagine the end of the universe. The mind stretches and it hurts.

Marion means well, tries hard and struggles to understand her nearly incomprehensible adolescent kids. Her eldest son Leslie has a rock band called I Can't Stand You, and her two daughters Gabby and Lee are by turns delightful and impossibly sullen. Her nice-but-frazzled husband Gerry keeps threatening to move into a shack by himself or start a support group for the emotionally abandoned spouses of writers. (He might be able to pull it off. The family lives in the tiny town of Sidney, Vancouver Island, where writers abound.) Meanwhile mother-in-law Nana lives downstairs, trying to keep her dignity amid the hubbub of hormones erupting all around her.

Farrant is a terrific writer and in these stories she goes far beyond the safe predictability of an Erma Bombeck. Marion isn't just any mom but a mom who writes, and writes well. She has books out. She goes on the lecture circuit. Not that any of this earns her any respect points at home, where the chief question/accusation always seems to be, "How come there's nothing to eat around here?"

A few of these stories have appeared in other collections, including "Tic-Tac-Doe," a hilarious tale of home renovation gone disastrously wrong (think the bathroom from hell, with tiles hanging every-which-way and the toilet sitting out on blocks on the front porch for months) and "The Princess, the Queen and the Withered King (A Tale from Wit's End)," a slightly surreal modern fairy-tale. Elements of surrealism and post-modernism have always been present in Farrant's style, but here she sees the absurdity, the insanity and the dada-esque quality of daily domestic life in a way in which few others ever have.

This makes some of her observations laugh-out-loud funny (a teenage birthday party in which "the whole scene now reminded me of a TV episode of Nova: 'Gorillas in the the Wild'"), but also thoughtful and poignant. "You worry," Marion confides. "You have to worry... and often that's all you can do. Your worrying becomes a protective, personal antidisaster aura that you, the one who loves them beyond all measure, hurl hopelessly in their direction. It's almost like prayer."

Refreshingly, this isn't a particularly dysfunctional or troubled family. The kids radiate a huge and rambunctious health and an alarming, irrepressible sexuality which parents of teenagers will immediately recognize. Their parents love them immensely and grapple gamely with the new tribulations each day brings:

Weekend mornings I did a shoe check. If the Adidas running shoes and the black platform running shoes are in the mud room, then I'm okay, I know the girls are downstairs. But sometimes their shoes aren't there and I find strange shoes, alarmingly huge shoes, shoes no girl could ever fit into. Then I go snooping, the pitter-patter in my chest becoming boom, boom, boom.

What Marion is likely to find are "unknown boys sleeping alone beneath the girls' plaid flannelette quilt covers," with the girls nowhere in sight.

Surely Farrant has lived through a few of these things, lending the stories that truthful ring of disguised autobiography. No doubt she has brought home a couple of jars of Dippity-Do in her day, and the stories reflect it:

"I buy the cheapest brand, a 400-millilitre jar from Shoppers Drug Mart with a translucent green substance called 'Super Hold' that I often pry from the bathroom walls and floor. Gel application: Bend over, apply liberally, then whip your head back so that drops of congealed gel splatter everywhere. A jar of gel lasts only a week." The pleasure of this delightful collection has a considerably longer shelf life than that. | December 1999


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.