||Tangents And Trajectories
by Paul Stuewe
IN THE NOT so long ago days when women were discouraged from thinking or acting independently, journeys abroad were one of the few socially acceptable ways of escaping from oppressive lives at home. Travelling Ladies, Janice Kulyk Keefer`s new collection of short stories, has many affinities with the work of such expatriate writers as Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield, and Mavis Gallant, but also makes its own distinctive contribution to this rich literary tradition.
Keefer`s ladies in transit range from young girls to elderly matrons, and the dominant tones of these stories are intimately related to the cumulative experience of their protagonists. Those that feature older women, on the whole the least interesting group, seem somewhat burdened by the weight of both literary and personal inheritances. The strait-laced widow of "The Grey Valise," who undergoes an all too predictable epiphany, and the lonely Ianguage teacher of "The Lesson," who has suddenly lost her mate, are formulaic figures whose essential inertness resists even Keefer`s deftly woven prose.
The elderly traveller in quest of "A Really Good Hotel" is much more engrossing, thanks to a degree of mystery and ambiguity that encourages our complete immersion in the narrative. Mrs. Paxton`s arrival at Shady Nook signals a bewildering shift in her perceptual world, as her story supports interpretations of dreaming, mental disorder, or even life after death. Strongly evocative of D. M. Thomas`s The White Hotel but possessing a fierce intrinsic vitality entirely its own, this mesmerizing tale demonstrates Keefer`s ability to create as well as recreate realities.
Five stories concerning much younger women exhibit a similar mix of qualities. "The Amores" is a fairly slight effort about a schoolgirl`s decision to take her own path in life; and the callow young bride honeymooning in "The Gardens of the Loire" is one of a set of stock characters borrowed from slick-magazine fiction, and then put through some entertaining but obviously manipulated manoeuvres. As is also true of "Prodigats," whose early-twentyish protagonist hurries home when she learns her grandmother is dying. The detail and brisk pace of Keefer`s stories don`t always suppress our awareness of the controlling presence behind their efficient movement from conundrum to climax.
But when Keefer concentrates upon showing us what her characters are seeing and feeling, and resists the temptation to make her stories add up to the exact total of their respective parts, something far more remarkable results. "Bella Rabinovich/Arabella Rose" and "The Grandes Platieres" are related from a child`s-eye view, thus exempting their narrators from the kind of presumptive omniscience that Keefer`s story-tellers else-where where tend to affect, and both merit a "worth a detour" designation on the content, page of Travelling Ladies.
The pre-teen protagonist of "Bella Rabinovich/Arabella Rose" has two identities, one as the dutiful daughter of Toronto parents and the other as the vacation guest of English relatives, and it is the Later whose exotic unfamiliarity has rho greatest impact upon her. In describing what will probably he her final SLIMtrier with these distant and intriguing relations, She proffers a fascinatingly oblique view of what lifes vicissitudes look like from an immature but forthright perspective. Clever touches Such as her candid equation of religious saints with romantic cavaliers make the world of Bella Rabinovich/Arabella Rose" a surprising as well as interesting place to visit.
Katie Kovacs, the slightly older and marginally more sophisticated subject of "The Grand Platieres," provides a similarly revealing outlook. When her own loud but loving clan becomes involved with an unhappy family during an Alpine holiday, Katie initially assumes that a new friend`s existence is far more exciting than her own; as she learns more of the facts of the matter her view is Subtly modified. Once again it is Keefer`s fidelity to a partial, probing point of view that makes a griping story Out Of 3 standard fictional situation.
Travelling Ladies also includes four portraits of women in the middle of their lives, and here we enter more forbidding a, well as more consistently rewarding territory. Intimations of mortality, and fears that disease and disorder may hasten the body`s inevitable decline, are very much in evidence, as even the girls-on-a-lark-together mood with which "Isola Bella" begins turns into 2 bleak reminder of the ends that await LIS. Such terrors have completely obsessed the career woman of "Accidents," whose assumptions about lifes essential benignity have been brutally refuted; and they are also front and Centre in "Going Over the Bars," a streamOf consciousness farewell from a woman whose despair is partially deflected by worry about whether She is experiencing her death in the proper way. It is only as she submits to insistent memories of her childhood, and loses her socially imposed dread of misbehaving, that she is finally able to accept what fare has apportioned her.
Powerful and sharply observed though these stories are, they must yield pride of place to the profoundly disturbing questions posed by "The Dark." Its narrator seems to be responding to some persistent form of interrogation, perhaps external and perhaps not, as she recounts the circumstances of a journey undertaken to pay her last respects to a murdered colleague. Dislocated in both setting and sensibility, this anguished, articulate voice holds us riveted with its meditations on our mutual condition:
... I am concerned -- at your request -- with memory, with what litters the floor of the mind. Or what falls through. Sometimes I imagine the past as an enormous and ornate room -- a pantheon or rotunda. The floor has given way, you can`t cross from one side to the other except by going all the way around, stabbing footholds into the walls. And even then you never reach the end, YOU just go on groping and pulling yourself round and round, grabbing onto ornaments, excrescences. Perfectly nonsensical details -- a hole in a door, a dried-up spider plant, perfume spilled on the bathroom tiles ...
In "The Dark" and several of the other Stories in Travelling Ladies, Janice Kulyk Keefer passes well beyond the limitations of conventionally accomplished literary work. Never less than well crafted, and sometimes astonishing in their combination of viscerally stunning impact and dazzling technical facility, these absorbing tales of fellow passengers on the road to the future beautifully exemplify Robert Louis Stevenson`s dictum that "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."