So This Is Love

by Gilbert Reid

Published by Key Porter Books

222 pages, 2004


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Love and Lollipops

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

 

Some readers may have heard a bouncy little tune made famous back in 1964 by Little Millie Small, "My Boy Lollipop." This is the tune that a "stacked," long-haired blonde with only half a face is trying to learn in the short story that inspired the bright red and white sucker on the cover page of Gilbert Reid's collection So This Is Love. The word sucker no longer looks right on the page, I know, but I think Reid would like it. It hints of the warning that should be posted beside that delectable looking lollipop; what you see is not what you are going to get. There is nothing sweet or pretty in these nine stories. Readers seeking comfort food should look elsewhere.

Not that the reader is suckered in, but rather are so many of the characters in these stories. In the name of love, they get awfully misled. The pathetic young girl in "After the Rain," who desperately needs help yet allows herself to be used and discarded by a callous hedonist in Paris; a skinny high school girl escaping abuse who climbs into a stranger's car, believing that she will find safety and rides to her probable death; an aging lover foolishly thinking he can find permanence with a 23-year-old free spirit.

A book with the theme of love is probably going to be picked up primarily by women, but there's a lot of irony laced into this compact book and many women are simply not that cynical when it comes to love. I wonder how many refunds are being processed at the "returns" desk?

The editor has wisely gone in search of book cover quotes by well known women writers. Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret MacMillan, for example. MacMillan compares this short fiction to the great traditions of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, but I suspect someone in the know is wearing a sardonic grin.

From Paris to Italy, from war-torn Bosnia to rural Canada, the stories in So This Is Love range and reflect the versatility of the author himself, a film, television and radio producer who has been a lecturer in Sicily, a diplomat in London and Rome, an economist in Paris and reviewer for the Globe and Mail and the Times Literary Supplement.

Without getting into a debate about what makes "male" and "female" narrative, I have rarely read a work of fiction where the male voice behind it has been so prevalent.

In the story I liked best, Pavilion 24, a beautiful, blind young Serbian girl and a Muslim soldier with an amputated leg lie neglected in a chaotic hospital. They both will die in this world gone crazy, if not from infection then from the bloody world outside or simply from neglect. The last words of the doctor and United Nations officer make the outcome clear just in case the reader attempts to provide a happy ending. In between the "living nightmare" the two victims move closer together. She brings him water. They provide warmth for one another. Is this love? In this book it's as good as it gets.

But back to Lollipop; a gaggle of drunks assemble on the beach to drink, kill time and play sex games. The young woman with large breasts and half her face missing was disfigured in an automobile accident. She wants to learn the song for some undisclosed reason and agrees to go into the frigid sea if she can't render it the way she has just been taught. She can't, and so she does. Wanting to understand the significance of the song, I delved into the lyrics. They go like this: "My boy lollipop, you make my heart go giddyup, you are as sweet as candy, you're my sugar daddy," and so on. There's that irony again.

Overall there is a strong sense of ennui in many of the stories, expatriates who don't seem to have anything to do but drink and hurt one another. It's not a gentle world. Reid comments that "In a sense, the stories reflect, in an indirect and minor key, the failure of the Utopian aspirations -- both public and private -- of those years." He is referring to the European expatriate community just after the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps that's why the adjectives that come to mind for me are words like bleak, harsh, dissolute, mocking.

So This Is Love has exhausted me. I wore myself out looking for hope. I don't need sugar, I can do without spice, but I just gotta have some hope. | March 2005

 

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.