The Lion in the Room Next Door

255 pages,
ISBN: 0771080662

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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Alana Wilcox

"Not a sudden glorious downpour but one that gathers slowly, the sky taking on colour like wounded skin, the thunder muffled at first, then ominous, moving closer, until lightning strafes the clouds..."

Like the storm she describes, Merilyn Simonds' writing finds its strength in accumulation. Lying somewhere on the continuum between fiction and memoir, her latest book, The Lion in the Room Next Door (McClelland & Stewart, 255 pages, $29.99 cloth), is of the short-story-collection-as-Künstlerroman genre. The eleven tales are deftly handled and interesting on their own. And when they are brought together, they become truly poignant and irresistible, gradually creating- impressionistic-like, stroke upon stroke-a portrait of a life (Simonds' own, she makes clear) driven by emotion rather than fact.

The stories are presented in a vaguely chronological order, moving from childhood to maturity. They tend to write around the subject, avoiding the centre. Accordingly, they take place everywhere else-in Brazil, Mexico, Greece, even Calgary-until, in the last story, she is able to tackle the unnamed small Ontario town that is ultimately home.

What makes this book more fiction than memoir is what is not there: no dates, few names, no "significant" events. In fact, Simonds herself, like her sense of home, is somewhat of an absent centre. She never gives in to the impulse for emotional exposition; instead, she writes around herself, allowing her responses to be read through external details. For instance, in "In the City of the Split Sky", she finds herself, post-divorce, in the heart of Mexico with her younger son. Rather than dwelling on the anguish, the numbness, she, the passive observer, allows the tortured shrieks of howler monkeys, the suffocating passageways of "El Laberinto", and the gift of a murdered rare bird to speak for her emotional state. The subtlety of this technique allows for an indirect, and much more complex, characterization.

So, too, does the external world speak for Simonds in "Taken for Delirium", which covers the period leading up to the disintegration of her first marriage. Simonds is crippled by a back injury, but still manages to find the strength to abandon this unhappy marriage. She writes, in this context, about her awe of the single orchid flourishing on their rocky property, "because she survived on so little". Allowing the landscape to dominate is an effective way of presenting a life that, at that point, is characterized by acquiescence.

There are stories, however, where her technique of circumvention loses its focus, and the usually dexterous dance around the subject slips into rambling. In "The Distance to Delphi", which tells of the time Simonds spent wandering in Greece with her first husband and young son, for example, it makes for an ultimately directionless story. And "The Blue of the Madrugada", which is an attempt to bridge childhood and adulthood, meanders so much that it invites the charge of self-indulgence that Simonds otherwise successfully avoids.

These complaints are relatively minor. That Simonds so rarely falls prey to the perils of self-indulgence and lack of perspective with which the project of documenting one's life is fraught is admirable. And that she does so with writing that is adroit and graceful is commendable. At times, it is hard to reconcile the narrator's articulate and assertive voice with the silent, passive character about whom she writes; it is difficult to imagine this lost, acquiescent woman having the strength to use the image of a hand as a "long bleached eel" or to write "I need to know this place, I can't say why". But the juxtaposition emphasizes Simonds' development and makes for a more compelling book. This is its beauty: the accumulation of words, images, and details that do not convey a string of facts but that, once quietly assembled, acquire coherence and luminosity and tell the story of a life found and its voice. 

Alana Wilcox


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