Wednesday, November 26, 2008

McGill Tribune on Rosenblum's Once

Refreshingly honest and poignantly subtle, Once, a collection of sixteen short fictional stories, is McGill alum Rebecca Rosenblum's debut. Set mainly in the diverse urban corners of Toronto, Rosenblum presents a number of mere glimpses into the lives of different characters, each struggling with their own brand of confusion, constricted self-awareness, and meditated acceptance.

We meet a whimsical, delicate girl who's always chilly but finds a certain warmth in a mysterious stranger identified only by his ice blue socks and coat. Next we discover a pair of girls who take the bus on route 99 and attempt to superstitiously control whether it comes or not by ordering either shrimp cakes or duck stew for lunch. In another story and another part of town, a young high school dropout floats somewhere between his grandparents' world of dried onion husks in the garden with Ronnie Spector reverberating on the radio, and the dingy world of daytime squeegeeing and showering at public pools. In yet another, we meet a city library worker whose past confronts her present, forcing her to examine what the people in her life really want, and whether or not she can give it to them.

The stories are simple, detached, and playfully dark with seemingly inconsequential details concerning each character's daily reality. Rosenblum, however, offers much beneath the mundane and mediocre, and doesn't attempt to shove her own meaning down the reader's throat. She only offers up her stories, her characters, and her insight, as if dangling them all gracefully before us, letting us pluck whichever thread should grab our attention, and allowing us to unravel it for ourselves.

While it would be tempting for a writer to intertwine the tales of a collection into one tight knot, gratifying the desire to see the connections before the story does itself, Rosenblum, thankfully, uses extremely loose ties to link the tales-so loose they sometimes aren't even there. We might see a character reappear a second time or the Vietnamese restaurant, Pho-Mi 99, feature occasionally, but Rosenblum doesn't demean her characters by pushing it too far. It's enough for the reader to see the small passing intersections, without being hit over the head by an extreme interrelatedness which would, really, make everything implausible.

What makes each glimpse so fascinating and revealing is the inexplicable relationship we develop with that specific character. The thoughts and musings that play out in their mind are ones we recognize as passing observations of our own, only they are thoughts we never could have expressed because we didn't consciously know they were there.

Once beautifully captures sixteen exposing and sincere illustrations. Character background is left unrevealed, plot details unexplained, and revelations stunted or even non-existent. There's no conclusion, no huge moral discovery, no change, no finality, because there can't be. We're given only a few moments of each person's time, a few thoughts, a few dry details or hidden secrets, and it really comes down to just a glance. But that glance, just once, is enough.

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