The Pumpkin-Eaters

by Lois Braun
259 pages,
ISBN: 0888011142

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Dreams Of Escape
by Dayv James-French

Lois BRAUN`S FIRST collection of stories, The Stone Watermelon, was nominated for the Governor General`s Award. In most of the 12 stories in The Pumpkin-Eaters, she opens the psyches of the people who inhabit a prairie town called Silvercreek. The stories with other settings -- Toronto, Mexico, travelling on the highway -- are populated by characters who seem oddly disconnected from their surroundings, as though they are carrying small-town conventions and constrictions with them. And so they are. Dreams of escape are perverted by the exigencies of sexual desire, financial servitude, and familial obligation, by being too young or too old; even the weather can thwart ambition. "The Right Company" is set in a Silvercreek-like town called Pinehaven, the kind of place where the dry cleaner, liquor store, and videomart are in the same building. The arrival of a stranger sets in motion a free-floating anxiety that gradually focuses in the lump under Loretta`s arm, Suzy`s fear of never ridding herself of her clinging ex-husband, and Washbottle`s baffled examination of life as it`s presented in the blurbs on video-cassette packages. Very little actually happens in the story, but Braun`s sharp portrayal of the minutiae of dailiness builds to a dramatic and emotionally satisfying experience. "Still Lonely in Wawa" is somewhat less successful in creating, by a series of diarylike entries, the tensions and undercurrents in a family gathered for Christmas. There are many fine moments, but Braun seems somewhat unsure of her vision here; she introduces an absent sister who serves no clear purpose, unless it is to suggest a physical analogy to the emotional incompleteness of the reunion. There`s a similar scattering of elements in the title story, in which a pot of rice, a lesbian aunt, Hallowe`en, and a crippled girl next door are each given an almost transcendent aura, although the connections among them don`t go much beyond the fact that they are equally absorbing to the young narrator. In the Silvercreek stories, especially "No Cats in Heaven" and "Spells," Braun deftly balances nearly terminal ennui and erupting violence in a striking and assured manner. In the former, Boy Fehr is determined not to become "a robot" like his parents. His doppelganger is Cornie, "who had been four when be (lied of polio and became the last soul to lie laid to rest in the Silvercreek Cemetery." In the latter, Laura-Marie has inherited, with her mother`s house, custody of Olivia, who had been the Bible college cook until she was brutally raped at the age of 72. Braun deftly establishes the mood it) these stories; her ability to Suggest depth in a few words is admirable. Theres a sense of mystery, a kind of peripheral vision, in the centre of the stories that can give meaning to seemingly banal situations. At times, however, she gives too much weight to a moment and her language slides into reportage rather than recreation: "A smile opened at the corner of Olivia`s mouth. I let eyes flew open and she laughed. The eyes became small with laughter." The Pumpkin-Eaters is a rewarding documentary of what is called "the ordinary." The characters may he distant from each other and from their own dreams of the possible, but they connect with the reader: the stories create the sense of community longed for in the real world

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