You Never Know:
And Other Stories

by Isabel Huggan,
224 pages,
ISBN: 0670838691

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Shifting Expectations
by Janice Keefer

ISABEL HUGGAN's The Elizabeth Stories would be a hard act for any writer to follow: woken from its sleep on the Oberon backlist by the Book of the Month Club, which chose its author for its prestigious "New Voices" showcase, The Elizabeth Stories went on to win numerous awards, and to be published in Italy, France, and Great Britain. With You Never Know and Other Stories, Huggan has succeeded in retaining and, what's more, extending and developing what made her debut collection such a success: a powerfully acute vision and a remarkable strength and honesty of voice, particularly when she writes about female sexuality.

The stories in her first book are set in a small Ontario town during the '50s and '60s, but those of You Never Know cross three continents, and document what Huggan calls "the era of letting-go" - from the death of King George VI in 1952 to the Gulf War. Told, with one exception, from the point of view of a woman, these stories will resonate for readers of a certain age: that generation of North American war babies and babyboomers who have had to deal with a continually shifting set of social constructs and expectations, and an increasingly fissured sense of self and world. In a story central to the collection, "Orpha Knitting," the protagonist, a woman in mid-life crisis, finally gives up trying to hold together the web of loyalties, responsibilities, and desires that make up her ordinary, middleclass life. Discovering knitting to be "a magic art, a sleight of hand," and, like marriage, "all trickery and subterfuge," Orpha acknowledges as well the instability of all relationships, whether between husbands and wives, children and parents, or bosom friends. Yet what makes the story unpredictable is that, despite her recognition of how things keep drifting or falling apart, Orpha can feel extreme happiness, understanding "how beautiful she is now, finally at this age beautiful." This moment is typical of Huggan's ability to be at once direct and complicated. As she has one of her narrators exclaim,

I've gone off the topic again. But how can I not, when everything is so connected and layered? How can any conversation be linear when life itself is so snarled and twisted, so thick with memory?

Discomfiture is the key to her characters' perceptions of self and others, whether she is writing of privileged white transients in contemporary Africa, or of North Americans at work or on holiday in Europe, or of Canadians whose most exotic experiences have to do with summer jobs at the local mental hospital or with visits to a parent deranged by Alzheimer's. It's not that nothing is as it seems - everything, these stories concede, is problematic, skewed, entropic: we must recognize that we are not as we would like to be, however much we have been trained ''to smooth over and put a nice face on things." Nice is the one thing Huggan's narrators and characters are not; in this sense, they are kin to the Elizabeth of her first collection. Sexual desire, they learn, is only one of the things that make us inflict pain on ourselves and others; we endlessly betray ourselves and our best friends in that amalgam of ''suspicion and affection and malice" that makes up human relationships.

Honesty is the word that comes to mind in describing Huggan's vision honesty as the opposite of sentimentality or self-serving consolation. Yet one never gets the sense that Huggan calls a spade a spade for the enjoyment or superior status of being ruthless: she is out not to shock but to share with her readers her perception of the way, all-in-this-together, we live and lie now. And her warm yet sophisticated comic sense, so often directed by her characters at themselves, makes her honesty something to relish rather than merely respect.

Huggan emerges in this collection as a mature and effortlessly accomplished writer: she has the gift of deft and elegant phrasing, and also creates complex contexts that illuminate "commonsense" statements so that they come to mean in rich and unexpected ways. A writer capable of sustaining the wonderfully modulated humour of a story such as "End of Empire" and of giving us such moments of quirky grace as are found in "Knowing People" -where, having just lost her virginity with a perfect gentleman and stranger, the narrator looks out a window as the sun comes up, glimpses a nun saying her rosary, and feels "holy, chosen by God for bliss" need feel no trepidation at launching a new book after her first, enormous success. In this sense only, the book's title is a distinct misnomer -for there is no not knowing and celebrating fiction as rewarding as Isabel Huggan's.


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