Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Goldfish Dancer reviewed in the Globe

Away in Port Colborne camping with friends for the weekend. A lovely time. Even managed to sail on the Challenger, a 96 foot Tall Ship for a couple of hours.

What I could not find was my weekend Globe fix. I hit 7 or 8 convenience stores, none of which carried it. One clerk had never heard of it before. So I only found out about the Globe review of Goldfish this morning.

Needless to say, as a protective publisher, I don't agree with Ms. Berry on this one. Though I am not a frequent reader of the Post, I think their review of Goldfish was much more on the mark. Berry's focus -- seemingly critical -- on the international locales of Patricia's stories, and her comment concerning the lack of quotation marks seems to me a touch odd. As to the latter point, the list of prominent and successful writers who eschew quotation marks in dialogue is a long one, running from William Faulkner to Michael Winter. It's certainly something I would have thought this reviewer would have rubbed up against before.

Still, I'm happy for the coverage. The Globe editors have been quite generous to us: that's our fourth Globe review since April. As far as this particular one is concerned, I urge you all to take a look at this collection and judge for yourself. I have faith in you: I think you'll find a bit more here that "too many facts with not enough connecting sentences."


Travellers foreign and domestic


And Other Stories

By Lois Braun

Turnstone, 246 pages, $19.95


Stories and Novellas

By Patricia Robertson

Biblioasis, 158 pages. $24.95

Two talented writers, who have proved themselves before, offer up two very different collections. The Penance Drummer, by Lois Braun, and The Goldfish Dancer, by Patricia Robertson, have much to recommend them.

Robertson's first collection, City of Orphans, was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and The Goldfish Dancer has already been short-listed for the inaugural Metcalf-Rooke Fiction Prize for unpublished fiction. Lois Braun's short fiction has been nominated for the Governor-General's Award, the Journey Prize and the Manitoba Book of the Year Award. This is her third collection of stories.

The Goldfish Dancer consists of two novellas and five short stories, all of which are set with a view to history and the broader world. In First World War New York, postwar Alberta, 19th-century England and even contemporary Spain, Robertson reveals characters facing the variety of challenges life has to offer.

In Agnes and Fox, she intertwines the story of an Indian nurse, an elderly woman at the end of her life and the woman's imaginary friend, Fox. Graves of the Heroes deals with a woman, Claudia, who, after completing her PhD, takes a vacation in Spain in order to find the grave of a family member who died as a hero. Instead, she must come to terms with finding a dead baby abandoned in the bushes, an incident that knocks her out of her book-learning and into reality. The Goldfish Dancer mixes the First World War with an exotic dancer who uses goldfishes in her act.

These stories and novellas are full of information, layer upon layer of facts about characters, settings, history - sometimes too many facts with not enough connecting sentences. In Badlands, a little boy and his mother escape an amputee father and end up living in a hotel. The mother waitresses and finds a sleazy new boyfriend. Robertson gives us background, setting and character facts - sketches of these characters' lives - which are fulfilling, but also overwhelming.

Robertson has also chosen to write without the use of quotation marks. The combination of many-layered information about these characters' lives and situations, with no real punctuation, makes for staccato-like reading. A reader may constantly have to fight to figure out who is speaking. Is anyone speaking or is it just narration? And where are we in the story? Rhythmically, the writing is jarring. But the ideas within the writing are intensely interesting.

The Penance Drummer is an altogether different creature. Lois Braun situates her tales in small prairie locales or in suburban Canadian cities, in the here and now, with interactions between people who aren't travelling most of the time and who probably have never travelled or seen the wide-open world. But Braun succeeds brilliantly in making this collection complex and worldly by creating timeless and rich characters.

I relished this collection. I dove into it and didn't want to come up for air. Braun's style is addictive. She has characters who seem to speak out of the sides of their mouths, something like Hemingway characters. People who say just enough, and say it with a certain style, a certain finesse. Everything said has meaning.

Katy's dying uncle Isaac, in the story Assassins, hearing that a heron is standing still in the field beyond his house, tells Katy, "I suppose it's dying, then. Some things are too beautiful to live. Tigers. John Lennon. The world nurtures assassins to destroy them. Someone or something probably wounded it."

Dry wit and quiet humour seep through these stories. In Sturgis, an old woman talks to her dead brother as she works in her garden. When a criminal running from the police hides under her trailer, Liddy calls him by the name written on his shirt, Sturgis. " 'Hey, Sturgis ...' Then she sang. 'Stand up, stand up for Jeeee-sus ...' Because she didn't know what else to do, Liddy resumed watering the beans and carrots beneath the sun and the cloud mountains."

Braun's collection of wonderful characters shines. She might be the Alice Munro of Manitoba. There is such depth in these people's lives. These are expansive stories, like the prairie fields and skies. The stories are just large enough, just funny enough, just sad enough. Just enough.

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