Tuesday, July 03, 2007

National Post Review of Patricia Robertson

Each story is a gem of unusual lustre
Ruth Panofsky, Weekend PostPublished: Saturday, June 30, 2007
208 pp., $24.95
Lancashire-born Patricia Robertson's second collection of short fiction, The Goldfish Dancer, is a work of insight and mastery. Robertson may not be a prolific writer-- her first volume, City of Orphans, appeared in 1994 -- but each of her stories is a polished gem of unusual lustre. The lingering power of her prose resides in her original vision, intriguing characters and sophisticated craft.
Robertson's work is distinguished by its eclecticism, an unflinching depiction of the various treacheries of daily life and a capacity to surprise readers. Settings range widely across time and place, and characters do not resemble one another. The collection opens in Harlem in 1914, for example, and concludes in Manchester in the early 1900s. Characters include a half-black granddaughter of slaves and a Cheshire-born nursemaid of 11.
The few similarities that mark these stories are thematic and structural. Robertson's protagonists are displaced individuals who are estranged from local culture. Through minor but self-conscious misdemeanours that have significant bearing on their lives, they are partly responsible for their sense of alienation. Their destinies remain unknown, however, as story after story eschews closure and careens toward an unscripted future. In fact, Robertson leaves her characters --and her readers --poised for change and with the realization that they must accept responsibility for their own folly, however small or large.
The title story sets the cool, distanced tone for the rest of the volume. Frances Ridgeley leaves her farm in Southern Ontario for Detroit and later Harlem, where she becomes a renowned exotic dancer. Her career is cut short by the advent of the First World War and an unplanned pregnancy. When she laments her lack of foresight and lost opportunities, readers are not invited to feel compassion for her. Instead, like Frances, we face the arbitrariness
of events, both public and private, and the stark knowledge that these events have had an immutable impact on the course of her life.
In My Hungarian Sister, which was nominated for a National Magazine Award and will appear in the Journey Prize Anthology, a young British girl becomes obsessed with a newspaper photograph of a Hungarian refugee during the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Longing to adopt her as a sister, she names her Szaba and gives her a fantasy life. Later, as a journalist, when her childhood fantasy is threatened, she copes by ignoring the undermining facts offered by a colleague.
In other stories, reality is inescapable. Billy, the seven-year-old protagonist of Badlands, for example, is traumatized by his experience of abandonment. First, he and his mother, Mae, desert his father, who has lost a leg in war, and flee their home in Ontario for Alberta; later, Mae leaves her son in the care of her new lover, a relative stranger. When Billy's escape and attempt to return to his Ontario home is foiled, he feels "already centuries older; looking down ... from the blue darkness of outer space and not noticing anything at all." In Girl with a Cello, the young protagonist's obsession with cello music, at first moving and redemptive, is later the source of her downfall. Following her flatmate's premature death, the protagonist in After Annabel -- who comes to know Annabel through family and friends more deeply than in life--offers a discerning view of life's narrative possibilities that echoes across the collection: "You never knew how the story would turn out. You put the pieces together as best you could and handed them on, when the time came."
Only two of the seven stories gathered here proffer tentative resolution. After a circuitous quest, the protagonist in Graves of the Heroes arrives at an unanticipated but healing self-discovery, and Agnes and Fox is unusual for the solicitous relationship between an aged woman and her caregiver at its core and its ending of promise and hope. Robertson's stories of everyday life gone awry will haunt readers who cannot fail but be impressed by their broad vista and artistic precision.

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