You're probably familiar with the Journey story; in an act of brilliant planning, McClelland & Stewart arranges with James Michener to donate the Canadian royalties from his 1988 novel, Journey
, to support emerging writers. The result is the annual high-profile Journey Prize Anthology
. We're now up to number seven. The prize itself includes not only a significant $10,000 to a writer but also $2,000 to the journal that submitted the winning piece. For readers, the anthology provides a chance to see what the year's fresh crop has to offer. For writers, appearing in its pages is like being treated to a long weekend at a five-star hotel.
If you didn't already know the Journey story, you might at first glance mistake this collection for a theme anthology about one journey in particular: the parents' journey of immigration from Europe to North America.
At the beginning of Kathryn Woodward's "Of Marranos and Gilded Angels", a boat arrives in New York. It is January 1940. A Jewish refugee, Erich Winter, "his gloved hand tight upon the rail, stared straight into the falling snow and wept." This story, which gathers emotional resonance as it unfolds, is told in elegant, richly textured prose. After the war, Erich and his wife Irene return to Europe as often as they can, inching ever closer to the epicentre, Germany. When they're killed in an accident in Europe, their daughter Thea inherits "her father's homelessness". The consequences of that inheritance are interwoven with a Mahler concert the adult Thea attends by chance, a memorial for a stranger.
The narrator in Antanas Sileika's "Going Native" is the son of an immigrant ("DP") family who watches his father navigate, "in seas only partially mapped, and where he was ignorant of how to act." His father has to steer a course through life in a raw subdivision in the early 1950s. Mr. Taylor, the banker who lives across the street, complains that the family's cat is walking on his lawn. The narrator describes his father's reaction: "He had negotiated with Red Army commissars and saved his sister-in-law from a Nazi labour battalion, but he had never heard a complaint such as this. This had to be an eccentricity. Banker or not, Mr. Taylor was an idiot." Sileika displays an a accomplished sense of story, and delivers sure-footed comic writing, full of sharp, affectionate detail.
A parent in the new land is also the theme of Michelle Alfan's "Opera". In this finely crafted and gentle story a daughter recalls how her mother would do housework to "Maria Callas singing in Lisbon." The story is about opera in its usual meaning. It's also about opera: drama/noise/chaos. In the house on Paradise Street in Hamilton there's lots of Italian opera of both kinds, much of it comic. But life on Paradise can be tragic, too. When the father is diagnosed with lung cancer, the mother says, "I knew we were too happy."
Gabriella Goliger's "Song of Ascent" follows the parents' immigrant journey and what happens when the mother can take no more. There is some powerful writing here, particularly in the descriptions of Jerusalem. For the narrator's mother, it was Jerusalem the golden, but her father never felt at home: "His blood was European, nurtured for generations by the fresh mountain chill of Bohemia." A Mr. Samson from Montreal, "whose pink cheeks were a living advertisement for civilized climates," promises a job, and a house and garden in Canada within the year.
"The Rat-Catcher's Kiss" provides a total change of pace from the family portraits. Roger Burford Mason's rat-catcher and his dog are a highly likeable pair. In this story we're in medieval Europe, in a popular folk tale told anew. The writing is stylish and full of surprises, with an appealing exchange between the rat-catcher and the rat.
Many of the stories in this anthology dig into the fertile soil of childhood and youth. Mary Borsky's narrator, at sixteen, is confronted with her father's choice for her of a husband, one Pete Paska, who speaks perfect English and perfect Ukrainian. In "The Falling Woman," Shaena Lambert's narrator dreams of her mother and her younger self, and what emerges is a narrative about power, sexuality, and intergenerational damage.
The eponymous "Boy" in Elise Levine's story hangs out by the alligator pool at the zoo and reviews his life, along with animal facts of interest, some of them lifted from old copies of Gator USA. Levine's technique is impressionistic, crisp, and effective. The reader is immediately pulled right into the story, which includes an itinerant mother and a parade of Pop Tarts, Chiclets, and Yoo-Hoo drinks. A typical sentence, "At Wal-Mart my aunt buys extra packages of t.p.," suggests the flavour of this boy's life.
"Hand Games", by Elizabeth Hay, has already won gold in this year's National Magazine Awards. Here the narrator's daughter, Annie, is best friends with Joyce. Both little girls are five years old. Joyce manipulates and withdraws; Annie goes back for more. As we learn about their disturbing relationship, the narrator reflects on our capacity for evil, our inability to protect our children, her relationship with her own mother, and her daughter's clear eyes of love. "Hand Games" is an exceptional, subtle story that stays with the reader; it is at once small and profound.
Overall, the quality of writing in this Journey Prize Anthology is something both readers and writers can feel good about. The collection is a sign of health in our short fiction and a promise of future vigour. But I do have one concern. This year, the anthology appears to have gone on a diet. Nine writers are represented, fewer than in any previous year, which may well have something to do with the number of magazines submitting. Whatever the reason, I hope the anthology fills out again. It's at its most attractive when it has all the sturdy allure of a "real book".