IN JOYCE MARSHALL'S collection of stories, Any Time at All, the narrator of "My Refugee" reveals the psyche of a woman who fled Germany for Canada as the Second World War began. The immigrant's husband has informed their Toronto landlord that his wife can't sleep in their room because the bedspread isn't white. Her distress seems frivolous at first, but the landlord, a refugee himself, knows better. Seeing what the narrator misses at first, he finds a white sheet to cover the bed. "Only so much strangeness can be accepted," Marshall writes. The woman "was proving herself a human being with tastes and a past. Bedspreads were white in her world."
This is more than a revelation of character, more than a confrontation of snap judgement. In a few sentences, Marshall leads us from dismissal of this woman to the painful fact that what we are dismissing is the human part of ourselves. In her place, we too would have wept over such an ordinary loss.
Each of these stories demands this kind of honesty of the reader. Marshall understands her characters to the depths, and her insights move out from the page and into our lives like concentric rings of water set in motion by a stone. Some of these stories evoke the prewar society of Montreal's outskirts. In "The Little White Girl," an ostracized English-speaking child begins the process of wresting space from the adult world through her secret wonder at the beauty of a French-speaking girt. "The Heights" concerns two girls who were young between the world wars, a time full of deaths that prefigured the death of their own world. This concern with the loss of those who remember and bear witness is most striking in the character of Georgina, the retired doctor in "So Many Have Died." This tough and noble woman has so much vitality that the violent conclusion to her life makes us fear for the end of memory itself. Every one of these stories is moral in the best sense; nothing is left unexamined, including the soul of the reader. Joyce Marshall is among our finest writers, and this collection is one of the year's best.
The inner lives of women take on different form in the writing of Margaret Gibson. Her collection Sweet Poison tells the stories of troubled women afflicted by severe emotional and physical hardship. They've been crippled by mental illness, incest, drug abuse - the all-too-common range of woes that has become the headline-fodder of the '90s. This is, indeed, a painful component of the real world, and life is strewn with the sad stories of people such as Cleo, sexually used and abandoned by her psychiatrist in "Season of the WitchHunter," or Megan in "Smile, Pretty Baby," mentally disturbed and hopelessly in love with a vicious man who cons her into making smutty movies. In "Beautiful Strangers," jasmine, a sensitive young girt, is plagued by suicidal impulses in a repressive suburban setting (what other kind is there?). And in "Charley's Tale," Sylvia, an incest victim, recounts the bleak English childhood that shaped her father and ultimately helped to traumatize her. All of it true to life, except that life does offer the occasional glimpse of hope.
Gibson's fragile, often poetic language captures well her characters' sense of drift and disorientation. Its dreamlike quality also reinforces the complete self-involvement of most of these women. This is writing that continues the illusory world of the very ill. And like this world, the language shields and protects these characters, but does not reveal them.
In any case, it's hard to become engaged with the plight of these women when almost every one of them is portrayed as a victim of circumstance, too pathetic to be capable of action. "What could she have done? There was nothing... " laments the story of Rosie, a Catholic mother whose husband forces her to abort a longed-for six-month pregnancy. (This incident takes place in pre-choice Toronto the Good, where Rosie still might have called the clergy or the cops.) Too many of Gibson's characters luxuriate in a bath of pain; none of them struggles long enough with her own demons to uncover any truths about herself. One notable exception to this doormat-like passivity is Elizabeth in the title story, a disturbed single mother who emerges from a haze of pills and booze long enough to strive for and achieve - the goal of summer camp with her son. Her story may not be pleasant, but it breaks the tedium of suffering by offering a little bit of hope.
A sense of humour helps, as Libby Scheier demonstrates in Saints and Runners, her collection of seven stories and a novella. All of them concern the life of Arta, an artist and single mother, as she sorts out relationships with family, friends, and lovers. Familiar turf, but in the beautifully written epistolary story, "Letters to the Family," Scheier has set out each of these relationships with care, placing them one at a time in the frame of Arla's life like fine threads on a loom. The whole cloth of this book could have been woven of Arla's fragmentary but honest observations - about her radical, argumentative father who dominates her mother and whose stubbornness Arta sees in herself; her brother, with whom she jockeys for family position; her divorced husband, Joe; her four-year-old son, Sam, whom she struggles to raise alone. Yet nothing much of it, and the depth we glimpse is set aside for the rest of the book.
Language and wit are Scheier's real strengths. Her humour shines in "Pretty Goldfish," where Arta and her lover, Norman, wonder how best to "validate" little Sam's grief for the death of his pet. Satire is less successful elsewhere. Much of the time, the objects of Scheier's wit - New Age pretensions and the goofy hypocrisies of sexual politics - are too immature and silly to make good targets. In "The Saint Who Frequented Prostitutes," Arla's lover, Francis, a seemingly gentle, sensitive guy, turns out to be the kind of man who sees hookers and ties about it. After some funny one-liners, Arla ditches him. This is fair social comment, but it also means that the duality in Francis is never explored; he's meant to be a cardboard character, like Terry, the scatterbrained hunk in "Foreplay to Love." Terry's faults are listed on the page. Nothing is dramatized, no inner life revealed.
Too much of this amounts to manipulation, especially in the more serious novella, "The Runner." The title character - no name given -functions as a heavy-handed symbol. And then there's Felicia, the priggish vegetarian whose ditzy dialogue sets her up as an object of ridicule. Scheier doesn't yet have the knack of developing characters, not with the depth required for a longer form of writing. Her creations could be fascinating people if she would remove their placards and just let them live.