OVER THE LAST 10 or 12 years, Linda Svendsen has charmed and delighted readers with her too-rare appearances in the more prestigious periodicals and anthologies (the Atlantic Monthly and both Canadian and American best-of-the-year collections, among others). Marine Life does not disappoint; Svendsen lives up to her reputation as a rising star.
The eight exquisitely crafted stories are linked through the voice of Adele, by 10 years the youngest child ("I'm the baby," her sister says. "You're the afterthought.") in a family most notable for drawing bad hands in the stud-poker game of relationships, then raising the stakes when reason would suggest it is time to cash in the chips. A less accomplished writer's Adele would be owlish and passive, an all-knowing witness, but Svendsen deftly integrates her into the action with a remarkable sensitivity to the limits of Adele's awareness; each of her ages - from six to mid-30s is drawn with an uncanny exactness. Svendsen never cheats with the sentimentality of "Knowing what I know now...," but brings the reader into the process of discovery, the shock of recognition. Even the Vancouver setting develops as a character, evolving from its shipping and lumber past to the present car-and-mail culture. And the stories, for all their sorrow of failed lives, missed connections, and aching aloneness, are funny. In "Flight," when Joyce leaves her abusive husband, 14-year-old Adele summarise the situation:
The next day Mom urged me to skip school to help keep my sister company. I was also supposed to alert her if Joyce stayed longer than ten minutes in the bathroom or glanced at her reflection in a sharp blade. I missed an oral report on French verbs and my friend Penny telephoned to see if I was sick or what. "Joyce's marriage failed," I said. "She has to talk to me about it. This is bigger than French."
Svendsen's strong, original voice deserves a wide readership.
The 10 connected episodes in Rachna. Mara's Of Customs and Excise proffer a narrative that is reminiscent of Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place; the book needs to be read in linear fashion, no flipping and dipping. As in Naylor's novel, the relationships between women are the real focus, even as the settings change from India to England to Eastern Canada. Men are mainly peripheral characters, domineering brutes, flashers, rapists.
Four voices develop the narrative. Asha is a traditional Indian of low caste, learning self-sufficiency in a world where the apotheosis of womanhood is "a vegetarian virgin." Parvati, the link between India and Canada, moved to Halifax when her daughter, Mala, was eight years old. The doctor who delivered Mala is Bridget Parkinson, an Indian-born Englishwoman who encounters the casual racism of her homeland when she is sent back to be educated; but the central event in her life is her perception that she was abandoned by her mother. Mala feels the same way about her father when Parvati allows her to escape from the marriage he wants to arrange: "Bastard," Mala thinks, "would have sacrificed me on the altar of his Indianness." But it's the movement toward reconciliation between mother and daughter that provides the dynamic; the clash between cultures serves as its metaphor, rather than the reverse.
Mara clearly revels in the Indian settings, the lavishness of colours and fabrics, and the Hindi words for food and clothing. She seems to lack such assurance when writing about other places (England is described as: "The countryside was splendid"), and uses a less voluptuous prose that doesn't always create emotional resonance, but carries the reader along with its earnestness.
When a book is already burdened with a pretentious title and the nonsensical blather of a blurb by Aritha van Herk, it may seem churlish and redundant to point out that it is also almost unreadable.
In her introduction to the eight stories of The Rules of Partial Existence, which have Nepal as their primary setting, Judy Millar echoes Margaret Laurence's concern with getting a foreign culture "right," concluding, "I have forgiven myself for reflecting the very difficulty of engagement with a foreign culture, be it strange individual or nation...." That sounds suspiciously like a rejection of the writer's responsibility to connect subject and reader. The result is a self-indulgent opacity that resists penetration, as witness this paragraph from "Elephant in Taxi": "Your frozen limbs trickle. Something remembered. Bones and ragged bits fuse and swell. Nerve ends sing to their partners. You grow knees. You grow pads."
Difficulty of engagement? Exactly.