||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
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,
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
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.