Translating Women

by Bill Stenson
ISBN: 1894345770

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A Review of: Translating Women
by Paul Butler

This short story collection from Thistledown Press explores an underworld of misfits: arsonists, strip club bouncers-people who function outside ordinary social norms, and are emotionally insulated from the pitifulness of their own lives. There is an oddly Canadian texture here, a kind of understatement in which tragedy is filtered through the lens of wry humour.
The men and women in Translating Women rarely confront their problems head-on. In "The Only Sign of Fire", husband Lester climbs up a maple tree positioned across from his home and calmly settles in to watch as his former brother-in-law, Fred, begins an affair with his wife, Peggy. He observes this betrayal with a comic detachment, breaking off suddenly to marvel at the taste of a sandwich he has bought from 7-11. "Some genius deserves a pat on the back, I can tell you. It's either the mayonnaise or a secret spice." He remains for days, watching as Fred moves in. Eventually his daughter sets up a TV for him in the tree.
In "No One Can Fish Forever" a boy who used to collect stamps takes to collecting suicide notes after his father takes his own life. The tragedy of the story is both heightened and counterbalanced by the young narrator's wit and charm. "The best way to get stamps," he tells us, "is to buy them cheap off someone who used to think stamps were worth collecting but found out they weren't." The reader is all the more drawn to the young protagonist because he clearly doesn't consider himself an object of pity.
Similarly offbeat in both narrator and story is "Simple", the tale of Frieda, a trucker who starts a relationship with a skinny, mother-obsessed young man, Harry Tulip. Harry loves being a passenger in Frieda's truck, sometimes even sitting on her knee. He is both excited by Frieda and scared of following through. Frieda voices her confusion: " Harry Tulip. . .I need to know why it is you can explore my nether regions like some sixteenth century explorer on his way to China, yet when I try to reciprocate...well, you know."
Harry explains that he is saving himself for the day he gets married. So Frieda pushes things along by insisting on meeting Harry's mother. There is an element of magic in this story, and it makes one feel that there is an odd serendipity lying in wait behind life's catastrophes. "Harry's mom was so frail it made speech seem like a miracle," Frieda says. Just as Frieda's hefty form and no-nonsense style conceal a gentleness and optimism which takes the reader by surprise, so the story delivers a kind of happy ending that Frieda does not expect.
Stenson creates characters who are both likeable and intriguing. But while the many first-person narrators are all individually convincing, they are all somewhat alike. Frieda, Lester, and the young collector of suicide notes, for instance, all share basically the same sense of humour and remain unflappable in the face of disaster. This helps to establish Stenson's authorial voice, but at the same time, it undermines his attempt to create a colourful and offbeat cast as certain aspects of their characters are rendered overly uniform.
Some of the stories are told in third person, but these, like the first person narratives, have protagonists who react with listless detachment to events which might cause a crisis for others. In "Elivira's Thirtieth Birthday", a man plans a surprise party for his wife, Elvira, but Elvira is too busy trying to help a depressed work colleague. She travels farther and farther away from the party, phoning home every so often while the husband nonchalantly entertains the guests on his own.
In a major departure, "The Short Life Of Carmelita" relates in future tense the changes in a woman's life from the moment of her birth. The story serves as a commentary on that odd sense of fatalism running through these intriguing tales.

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