Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Vancouver Sun reviews Flood's English Stories

by Candace Fertile

Vancouver writer Cynthia Flood has won a slew of prizes for her fiction, and her latest book, a collection of linked short stories called The English Stories, shows why the accolades are so well deserved. Flood is a thoughtful writer whose richly dense prose opens up worlds to explore.

In this collection of 12 stories, she employs several narrative stances to show what happens when a Canadian couple and their daughter go to Oxford, England, for two years in the early 1950s. Gerald Ellis is an academic working on Keats and Shelley -- or, as he and his editor wife, Rachel, joke, "Sheets & Kelly."

The wordplay is extended by Flood, particularly to expose the difficulties 11-year-old Amanda Ellis has with her Canadian accent and vocabulary.

Amanda is at the centre of the stories. The collection begins and ends with a third-person narrator focusing on her departure from Canada and her return.

In some of the stories, Amanda is the narrator, giving the perspective of a young girl thrust into uncomfortable circumstances.

She is sent to boarding school so her parents can travel, unencumbered, for their research. Flood does an amazing job of getting into Amanda's head and describing what life is like at St. Mildred's School, a no-nonsense establishment meant to prepare girls for the world, but which destroys some in the process.

Intelligence and being Canadian partially save Amanda from the grief that afflicts other students.

As for me, my Canadian speech and ways precluded both popularity and rejection. I'd settled into the familiar route of a minor planet, not as peripheral as the weepers who didn't have a clue and threw balls poorly, nor as the other foreigners orbiting further out -- the girl from the Orkneys with an accent so peculiar she scarcely spoke, and the Irish girl suspected of Roman Catholicism.

Amanda occasionally leaves the school to stay with her parents at The Green House, a residential hotel where some rather eccentric characters live. Flood dips into the lives of the teachers at St. Mildred's and the inhabitants of The Green House and uses different narrative points of view.

In The Usual Accomplishments, for example, Flood focuses on the elderly twins Milly and Tilly Talbot and their penchant for doing puzzles from The Times.

They are quite competitive with the puzzles, and Flood shows how circumscribed their lives have been because of gender and economics.

In A Civil Plantation, the only male teacher at the school tells his story. He agonizes over a grade he gives Amanda for a picture she has drawn of English settlers planted in the ground, their mouths open in Edvard Munch-like screams.

The multiple voices create a vast and profound examination of time and place. So many of the characters appear trapped in worlds not of their own making, and unhappiness infiltrates most of the lives.

Along with the unhappiness is a kind of acceptance of how things are and, as visitors, the Ellis family provides a counterpoint to the others in Oxford. The Ellises get to go home and resume their comfortable lives. But the others (with the exception of some schoolgirls) carry on valiantly, if perhaps gracelessly.

One of the guests at the hotel is Captain George Belland, who is in Oxford to study for his viva voce (an oral exam). Occasionally his wife comes to stay with him, and they are a wildly mismatched couple. Belland would love to emigrate to Canada to teach in a boys' school, but it's quite clear that his wife would never agree.

He pumps the Ellises for information about Canada and is delighted when Amanda shows him her "Indian box," a handcrafted container of birchbark, sweetgrass and porcupine quills.

But Belland has his dark side, and while the adults understand what is happening between him and his wife, Amanda doesn't. Readers see her confusion and her desire to know, but no one will explain.

The English Stories is a remarkable book. Flood's insight and skilful prose illuminate a diversity of characters and provoke thoughtful sympathy for people caught in lives they wouldn't have chosen, given a choice.

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