Opium Dreams (McClelland & Stewart, 240 pages, $19.95 trade paper), by Margaret Gibson, is a first novel, but Gibson is by no means a new figure on the Canadian literary landscape. The novel follows four short story collections, the first of which (The Butterfly Ward) shared the 1976 City of Toronto Book Award with Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle. One of the pieces from that collection, "Making It", was the basis for the movie Outrageous, starring the now-deceased female impersonator Craig Russell.
In Opium Dreams, Gibson re-visits territory familiar to readers of her earlier work. Maggie Glass is a middle-aged divorced writer whose father, a tailgunner during the Second World War, is now dying of Alzheimer's disease. She and her son, whom she fondly calls The Kid, return to Toronto to be near him. As an epileptic who as a teenager had spent (Gibson would most likely say "served") time in a mental institution, Maggie is no stranger to the daily indignities of hospital life and, as she watches her father deteriorate, she tries to come to terms with him not only as her parent but as a human being. As she pores over his collection of photographs, she reconstructs both his and her own life in the process, comes to forgiveness through understanding.
What Gibson pulls off is an enormous feat of empathy, of connection. And, as always, she writes in a voice that rings absolutely true. As Natalie Goldberg has said, "Writing is the process of asserting yourself," and in this, Gibson excels. Hers is the voice of a remarkable, unflinching "I" that excavates the truth buried in the facts. Reading her work is like confronting the world as if-to borrow one of her images-one's eyes had been peeled like a grape: raw, uncensored seeing. No matter how painful or harrowing the reality, Gibson does not look away. And those who look with her will gaze upon a terrifying darkness, unexpectedly beautiful in its rendering.