Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Fiction on the Eve of the Millennium

edited by Joan Thomas and Heidi Harms

Published by Anansi

280 pages, 1999

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Y2K Compliant CanLit

Reviewed by Holly Kulak


It is exciting to know that Canadian literature is poised to enter the next century in style. Consider the twenty writers, both emerging and established, showcased in Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Fiction on the Eve of the Millennium. Edited by Joan Thomas and Heidi Harms, this collection of short stories is buoyed by fresh prose and original, often daring, revelations.

Margaret Atwood's "The Labrador Fiasco" opens the collection, masterfully paralleling an infirm father's decline with a story he is reading about two hapless American explorers seeking adventure in the north: "They know they're going into danger, but they also know they are immortal. Such moods do occur, in the North." Atwood takes a traditional CanLit preoccupation (that of a daunting geography) and imbues it with an intrigue that sustains the reader's interest: "It was in New York that the two men bought all the necessary supplies, except a gill net, which they thought they could find up north. They also failed to purchase extra moccasins. This may have been their worst mistake."

Ruminations about the unpredictability of nature, both human and physical, surface in a number of the collection's stories. Monique Proulx's curiously titled "Banana Chaudfroid" documents the experience of a young urban writer, Gabrielle, in the midst of an ice storm. When Gabrielle takes in strangers from an emergency relief shelter, she suddenly realizes that "The centre of the world is no longer out there, it is right here, along with these uncomfortable guests who need to be comforted." In an effort to allay the mutual sense of alienation, Gabrielle serves bananas chaudfroid, "...a very simple dessert. You cut open an unpeeled banana lengthwise, stuff it with butter and brown sugar, put it in the oven until the sugar melts, then when this small banana boat has turned black you take it out, drench it with rum which you set on fire, add vanilla ice cream. Repeat as many times as there are guests." Gabrielle's gesture is (pardon the pun) sweet, if not wholly triumphant. Food does not resolve feelings of displacement. Proulx's nuanced writing quietly illuminates the way strangers become an intimate part of each other's lives.

Death and disease comprise a more internal set of natural disasters in several of the collection's stories. What's exceptional about these pieces is their candor, the fearlessness with which the writers evoke the determination of their most desperate characters. In Bonnie Burnard's stunning "Evening at the Edge of the Water" a woman talks to the "black-hearted misery" (a.k.a. cancer) in her breast while wading into a lake to enjoy the sunset: "You and I are going swimming... It will feel shockingly cold, and you won't like it. You will discover that I do lots of things you won't like."

Connie Gault's story, "Leonard Dobie's Condition", chronicles the experiences of three nurses as they care for an ailing man. Miss Love, a former student nurse who quit upon realizing "...there was no use being a nurse if you couldn't be a great nurse," recalls the last time she walked to the residence wearing her uniform: "...my cape... I loved that cape, how it billowed out navy blue around me making me feel heroic." But Gault reminds us that for all our desires to be somehow heroic, there are limitations. As Karen, the third nurse explains, "We never look past what's in front of our eyes. One body today, another tomorrow. We try not to forget the names."

Interestingly, the archetype of the nurse as a "healer" is metamorphosed in Mark Jarman's startlingly poetic story, "Burn Man on a Texas Porch." Jarman seems to ponder the inherent desperation of seeking saviors when a badly burned man who believes "Skin is your cage," seeks comfort from an escort who dresses in "...a parody of a nurse's uniform."

Some of the most poignant writing comes in the form of simple, yet magnificently-crafted sentences. Michael Winter delivers a powerful first-person narrative in "The Pallbearer's Gloves", the story of a man whose terminally ill brother, Bruce, is close to death. When he receives the late night call from a nurse saying "I'm afraid Bruce's taken a turn," our narrator journeys to the hospital, telling us: "I drive under a full moon, eating an apple."

Natural disasters take many forms in Turn of the Story. Leo McKay's "The Wedding Ring", begins in a bar with a man named Jeff saying, "She's going to leave me." The opening line might not be so effective if Jeff wasn't referring to his wife, Bev, who is sitting across from him. That Jeff refers to his wife in the third person is the least of this troubled couple's concerns. Their flagging relationship is further jeopardized when "A shotgun blast charges the air." (A few hints: neither shoots the other, both remain physically unharmed, and the mystery lies in the lost wedding ring.)

Then there's Lynn Coady's deftly-crafted story, "Play the Monster Blind". In this piece, Bethany accompanies her boyfriend on a trip to meet his family. Like most families, their bonding rituals are idiosyncratic: they beat on each other both verbally and physically. Coady has many strengths as a writer, not the least of which is her ability to comment on dysfunction without surrendering to banalities.

Cultural displacement and the struggle for identity (sound familiar?) are explored in Dionne Brand's "Tamarindus Indica". The story centers around a disillusioned Caribbean man, Samuel Sones, and his childhood memories of a mother whose dreams for him eventually yield disillusionment. Upon noticing his friendship with a well-to-do boy, Sones's mother assiduously tries to nurture it, "...sending Samuel with a cloth-covered dish of mangoes or pomme cytheres or pomeracs for the boy." Later, when the adult Sones is discharged from the military, we learn that his same childhood friend is now a high ranking officer.

Olive Senior also examines the threat of cultural erosion in her story "Mad Fish", about a messenger named Radio who struggles against linguistic impositions while trying to relay an exciting story. His authentic voice eventually transcends the barriers, and his language is both lively and unique.

Humor, however dark, fleeting, or mordant, adds a refreshing dimension to stories that nevertheless offer bold insights. In "Born Again", Greg Hollingshead demonstrates his uncanny ability to weave humor into passages that carry more serious undertones when a young boy discovers the manipulative motive behind a puppet show at Orange Hall. The show begins innocently enough, but soon becomes evangelical, escalating in a call for the children to line up near the front and take Christ into their hearts. The boy initially resists, then reconsiders: "Cautiously [he] looked around. None of the other holdouts were kids he had any respect for at all, whereas up at the front Darko Told -- one of the first to defect -- kept half-turning to show him the crossed fingers behind his back, and by other surreptitious contortions and facial gestures, saying, The sooner you get up here, the sooner we all go home."

Guy Vanderhaeghe's 14-year-old narrator candidly tells us, "I want to be a crazy man like Jimi Hendrix," in the aptly-titled, "The Jimi Hendrix Experience". The boy's best effort at imitating his idol involves acting out a scripted prank with his two buddies, Conrad and Finty. Their target: ordinary people. Vanderhaeghe's ability to drop in simple yet hilarious statements never seems to wane. In telling us about his friends, our Jimi Hendrix wannabe states: "Conrad scares me. His long hair isn't a statement, just a poverty shag." The story gets really interesting when the disaffected pranksters are greeted by an old man, who invites them in, saying, "I've been expecting you."

The other stories in this collection are equally accomplished in both range and originality. From Steven Heighton's novel excerpt about a ferocious boxing match, to Lise Bissonnette's use of dresses to express the wonders of womanhood. Turn of the Story offers honest writing that, while not wholly optimistic (Canadian writers seem to have little interest in Pollyanna musings) still celebrates (however cautiously) the virtues of human tenacity. It is fitting that Carol Shields' story, "Our Men and Women", closes out the book, giving readers four flawed, neurotic, and thus utterly normal men and women: Earthquake man, Rainfall woman, Fire fellow, and Plague and Pestilence. Shields makes no startling pre-millennial revelations, offering instead a timeless truth: "Sometimes our men and women give way to old nightmares or denial or the delusion that living in the world is effortless and full of ease. Like everyone else, they're spooked by old injuries, and that swift plummeting fall towards what they believe must be the future."

If the nation's authors continue to write this well, CanLit's future is very bright indeed. | June 1999


HOLLY KULAK studied journalism at Ryerson though she ended up with a degree in liberal arts. Currently living and writing in Victoria, British Columbia, Kulak has spent time in Alaska, Alberta, and Florida where she skulked around Orlando and Key West, in search of both Hemingway's and Kerouac's ghosts (to no avail).