This first collection of ten short stories by a Vancouver poet form a series of snapshots of women poised midlife, when we assess our lives. The characters dive into discoveries, dreams, fears, forbidden sexual encounters, and protests. They think about their relationships with men, friends, and parents. Lambert switches deftly between first and third person, male and female, parent and child perspectives. We see how women view themselves, their bodies, and their lives.
In "Bats" and "Annunciation", we also get a glimpse of how men regard female bodies. In "Levitation" and "Sea Lions", two men, a father and a son, look at their wife/mother and compare notes in post-mortem dialogues. Dead mothers figure prominently in the collection in a kind of Jungian leitmotif reminding us of eterna femina. In "Levitation", a dying mother tells her son, "I won't stop loving you, James, just because I am not here. That's not how it works." Here is how it works in the title story. A woman dreams of her dead mother, looks at a rock which looks like a falling woman, and then hears her mother's voice in the night, as if it comes from within her. Lambert presents the mother-child relationship in its profundity; the words and voices of our mothers resonate in our psyches throughout our lives.
With the exception of one story, "Levitation", which is set in Waterloo in 1893, the landscape of these stories is contemporary. Toronto landmarks such as Highway 401, the Bloor Street viaduct, and the Annex make pleasing, familiar appearances, as does the lush beauty of the Ottawa Valley. The women are mostly educated, feminist, and peace conscious. Lambert is herself a forty-two-year-old mother of two. She spent most of the Eighties working in the peace movement. The writer's own mother Barbara Lambert is an award-winning author. The daughter gets to discuss the process of writing. Lambert recalls in a January Magazine interview sitting under her mother's chair at age six and longing to stop the sound of typing, a permanent influence on her life.
In "Resistance", a woman learns of her university professor husband's infidelity. She ruminates on her mother's marriage, and in spite buys a sexy black corset. Lingerie and beauty are classic female weapons as old as the story of Queen Esther, the Old Testament beauty who saved her people. In "Bats", we get a man's view of his beautiful dancer girlfriend's body. Her long limbs entrance him. He wants to write poems about her. The the perspective abruptly changes to female phobia, as Beth deals with her fear of bats. She tries to deal with matters practically. She takes a course at a local Jewish Y and learns to look at bats hanging from a bridge at night. She has to see the beauty in what she fears. The bats turn into something rich and strange, to magical creatures. It is an art of transformation and transubstantiation. In this story, told from a man's perspective, Lambert reveals the different ways in which men and women communicate. Beth needs to tell her lover Brendan about her deepest fear in her effort to attain intimacy. When she asks him about his, he remains silent despite his great love for her. Women in many cases need to reveal themselves; men withdraw into their caves.
In "Annunciation", a lovely young woman named Amanda plays for her lover Simon and her perverted oily boss, Mr. Kyle, the Madonna and Whore, another classic female role. Simon chooses her wedding gown and treats Amanda like a work of art, not a person. Amanda becomes for Kyle an "odalisque" when he seduces her in the workplace. At this point, Lambert injects a surreal poetic image as sea anemones cover Amanda's body opening and closing to let in the strange erotic charge. Lambert explores the irrational element of sexual attraction, the strange moulding of male and female thought to desire.
A similar direction is taken with "Sugar Bush". This is one of the most fully realized stories in the collection. Two female friends spend an afternoon exchanging confidences. The story contains many insights into how such relationships work. Melanie is jealous that Carol has spoken to another person about her current dilemma first, and feels a mixture of envy and disgust as her friend's story of forbidden desire unfolds.
Carol, a married mother of two, has been drawn into an inexplicable attraction. While pregnant with Emma, who is now nine months old and being breast-fed, she visited an alternative-style doctor named Michael Hagopian. Emma was in breach position, and Carol was hoping Michael could help. He was practicing "compassionate viewing" as a healing technique. He had asked her to strip and approached her with "his unfeeling gaze, his warm hands." Carol found him too restrictive and quit. After that, Emma's birth position corrected itself, and Carol delivered her easily. Some time afterward, Carol's husband told her that Michael had been discharged from the medical profession. Two patients had accused him of sexual misconduct, and his wife had charged him with abusing his own children.
Carol confesses to Melanie that she has a strange desire for this man, as though he is a prophet who can hurt her but somehow lures her. One day, possibly hoping to see Michael in his own neighbourhood, she wanders into the sugar bush with her two young children. Michael sends a bullet whizzing past her cheek, making her feel like he is intending to kill her. Still, when her husband is away, Carol invites Michael over, allows him to place his head on her belly, and feels a weird sexual charge. She imagines what it would be like to have Michael inside her, "entering her again and again, flooding her body. Melanie listens to this story and wants an experience like this: "I wanted that so badly for myself: to be knocked at, unloosened, to feel another person banging against me from the inside." She cries baptismal tears at her friend's pain and begs Carol not to run off with Michael. Carol assures her she will not. She is aware that sexual attraction comes to her as a plague, and that she will not go anywhere with Michael because of her two children. For now, she will just live with the feeling and speak about it with her women friends.
In another successful story, "Bare-Breasted Women", a young woman named Gloria visits her parents, Ruth and Geoffrey, on the evening of a feminist protest in Guelph. Again, the central theme is the objectification of women and intergenerational relationships. Gloria feels "impotent misery" as she is wedged between her parents. Her father does not believe women should tempt men with their bare breasts, while her mother believes "sexual heat" is the central dynamic between men and women. With a mixture of curiosity and disgust, the mother pictures the strip joints close to where the protest will take place. And then, thinking of her relationship to her own mother (an alcoholic) and her biblical namesake, Ruth, she wants to cleave to her daughter and observe her participate in the bare-breasted demonstration. Ruth believes, like her husband Geoffrey, that sex is the fundamental dynamic between men and women, but she wants to follow her daughter's vision into a new world in which women cease being sex objects. Gloria, at the same time, envies her parents for keeping sexuality alive in their relationship, acknowledging thereby the power of sex and sexuality between men and women.
This collection tells fascinating stories. The vignettes are slim and the use of poetic metaphor becomes flesh as in "Chlorine Flower", in which a group of workers stroke a machine. Shaena Lambert is working on a novel. Meanwhile, her stories are tight, modish, and full of the magic of changing gender and perspective. The longer form should allow her to develop her characters and situations more fully. This is an author to watch. ò