FRANCES ITANI appeals more strongly to the heart than to the intellect. With writing as beautiful and textured as fine tapestry, she constructs chronologically discontinuous vignettes that are layered into whole pictures of lives or people.
The most powerful story in Truth or Lies is also the least traditional: "White Butterfly" depicts a Japanese grandmother who has become separated from her family in the great crush of a crowd waiting for a train. Lyrical and intense, Itani's description of the old woman's strength and frailty and of the minute details of her coping strategies (which include proudly munching on a discarded rice ball) recalls the powerful work of Marguerite Yourcenar. The focus slips toward the end (has the old woman died in the heat? is she senile?) but the clarity and beauty of the old woman's memories and of the repeated images ("Feet. Something white.") are compelling.
Itani's tales of pensions in Europe, "An Evening in the Cafe'' and "Scenes from a Pension," are reminiscent of the cool, deep writing of Mavis Gallant. In the former, Ruth, a university teacher, dreads and seeks letters from home that do nothing to relieve her distress; in the latter, Bridget, a tireless pension waitress and maid observes the tourists with a mixture of longing and disdain.
In the two stories about the narrator and her sister Jessie, who has died,, the joyous recounting of childhood adventures is balanced and darkened by the way these childhood memories are interwoven with the narrator's memories of her sister's last weeks. The songs they sang and swear words they used as children to bolster their courage are armour against the casual insensitivity of the, hospital, and also work as a defence against the pain of Jessie's death.
Itani does not always escape the gravest danger of celebration in art: sentimentality. In "Grandmother" and in the title story an unrelieved sugariness spoils the writing: "Grandmother" reads more like an appreciative memoir of a noble and strong woman than a story, and "Truth or Lies" is a busy slice of life in which an understanding husband saves the day; again, more a. sweet moment than a structured story.
Despite these quibbles, Truth or Lies is an extremely likable book. Itani's writing is consistently muscular, her characters charming and defined, and her decision to celebrate life and its joys against the sorrows fate brings shines with honesty and daring.
The stories in Cynthia Holz's Home Again concentrate on gloomy, repressed lives; people are dangerous containers that threaten to explode. In "Jack M.," Irene succumbs to the sexual blandishments of the not very beguiling but persistent Jack after they meet in a laundromat. For Irene, this is a nightmare; for Jack, a pleasant interlude. Completely opposite interpretations of shared experiences and personal power struggles inform Holz's stories. In "Nights with Harry," a young woman wastes her -life obsessing about and waiting for a misogynist philanderer. Uncharacteristically for this book, she finds the strength to reject his abuse.
It is sufficient, many of these stories seem to say, to present a situation without judging or containing it, just as life can be neither judged nor contained. Ambiguity reigns: a widower secretly compares his new (married) girlfriend to his dead wife, and can't be happy with either memory or reality; a young woman and her mother compare the men they didn't marry.
Holz's most memorable characters are dominating, resentful women who constantly nag and cajole their families, and the voice of the omniscient narrator in the stories is similar: a cold, precise voice, fascinating while it is telling a story, patronizing when it editorializes. It is the voice of Esther in "Queen Esther," who has spent her life urging people to do the right thing, who in discovering her own humanity finds only deep loneliness. Unfailingly, Holz directs the reader to inhumanities. Although the stories are not touching, many of them, curiously, had me in tears.