MARLIS WESSELER's first collection of short stories, Life Skills (Coteau, 112 pages, $12.95 paper), reveals what those who have encountered her work in literary quarterlies and on CBC radio already knew: Wesseler is a fine storyteller.
In this gathering of 13 stories, each told from the point of view of a woman narrator, Wesseler writes with a confident command of viewpoint, tone, and persona. Now a young woman reflects on love; now an elderly woman prepares herself for death; now a woman watches in amusement as her friend steals her intended one-night-stand; now a street-wise woman deals with a flasher.
Wesseler handles tough humour, wry self-mockery, and tenderness with impressive sureness of touch, giving to each of her women a rounded sense of presence and humanity, as well as a deeprunning thread of perception and determination that is not betrayed by surface vulnerabilities.
Wesseler's writing is unsettling but compelling. We never find out what happens to the husband who goes to the men's room at the airport and simply disappears; we only discover how his wife deals with the situation. We mutely understand the guilt of the mother who imagines her drunken and abusive son injured and confined to a wheelchair. We can only guess how a marriage continues when a wife discovers that her German husband's family in Berlin still harbours antipathy to Jews, and that he doesn't condemn them outright.
Wesseler's stories often do not end with any kind of resolution - indeed, most stop abruptly, though not before the reader has been set on a path of reflection. But they have drama, a fermenting intensity, and poetic moments of profound observation distilled in small, vivid images, such as the departed lover who can always be summoned by the smell of a few drops of liqueur in a bottle once shared in a more perfect moment.
Wesseler brings her protagonists vividly to life in the imagined and real worlds they inhabit. Women will read Life Skills with recognition and empathy; many men will be surprised to find that they do, too.