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Something Else Entirely Could Emerge
by Maureen Harris

On the cover of Ann Copeland's most recent collection of short stories is a detail from Cranach the Elder's Adam and Eve. In spite of the adage about confusing cover with content, the picture provides a good entry to the fictions within. In the painting Adam is scratching his head with his left hand as he takes the apple from Eve with his right. She hands it to him sideways, her somewhat hooded glance directed at neither apple nor Adam, but at something we don't see, perhaps in front of her, perhaps within. Past this cover, past title page and contents, the reader meets a quotation from Hugh of St. Victor's Didascalicon: "The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land."
Cover illustration and epigraph set the scene for stories of ambiguous (if not forbidden) knowledge. These stories tell us there are things in life to be learned, and show the experience of the familiar becoming strange to be central to that learning. Copeland explores how we come to knowledge through reflection and revelation of character. Most often she depicts self-revelation, but her characters live in a network of others, so the recognitions have a ripple effect, moving out to or in from family and community. Often too, revelation occurs in transactions around borders (internal or external, between countries, generations, persons). Different stories play different turns on borders.
In the opening story, "Mother Love", Hamp Spitsky is absorbed in a dawning disappointment with his second wife's silliness, particularly her feelings for her son, who Hamp thinks is unexceptional and selfish. When Alma unselfconsciously parades her mother-love publicly, Hamp is initially deeply embarrassed. Embarrassment gives way to pride and affection as he recognizes what her ability to act from her feelings, unconcerned for their seemliness, means for him:
"They would go out there, into the night, through life, survive. Neither ignorance nor innocence would undo them. Given the moment something else entirely could emerge. He felt it. He knew."
The family is frequently the ground where this "something else entirely" emerges, transforming a known homeland into a strange and disturbing foreign land. Copeland is not afraid to cross troublesome borders, treating even the least savory self-revelations as moments of meaning, sometimes linking people, sometimes separating them. The mostly hidden erotics of family life, particularly between children and parents, are brought to the surface for reader and protagonist in the tough "Crossing the Border". Family eros is a subtext in several stories that deal with mother-son connections. In the relationship between Alma and her son, and in the one between Edith and Tim (characters in both "Getting the Picture" and "The Parting"), a dance not unlike courtship is a strong and constricting thread binding the two. "Sin" unfolds a variation of hidden erotics, a border wrongly crossed, as a priest finds his past entering the present when a mother seeks advice for her son.
The complexities we inhabit in the doubled homeland of being both child and parent unfold in the wonderful "Another Country", a story that lifts off the page. Ellie, the first-person narrator, experiencing her own helplessness as mother of a son who does not speak, sees also how she is and is not helpless in her relations with her own mother.
Child, parent, sibling, husband, wife, friend: all these roles play their parts in the fable-like "Why Eat Pot Roast When You Can Sing?" This story strays farthest from the prevailing realism of the others. I persist in reading it as a tribute to the McGarrigles, because its two sisters are named Chlorine and Fluoride.
Copeland is equally skilled at first- and third-person points of view, and presents both male and female characters convincingly. Her women, particularly in first-person stories, seem edgier and quicker than her men, but the men often stumble into a surprising and bemused gentleness. The writing is accomplished and transparent, with strong cadences. One or two pieces read more like sketches than completed stories, and in "I Only Write Comp" the cleverness goes on too long at the end.
Copeland has a remarkable tenderness towards her characters. She shows their ordinary lives as ground for epiphany. What is amazing, she suggests, is not this epiphanic quality, but our thickheadedness in considering it unusual. She reminds us that no matter how well we know ourselves or what we love, surprise is always possible. Things change, people are different than we thought them. In this difference and change lies grace.

 Maureen Harris, a Manitoban living in Toronto, is the author of a book of poems A Possible Landscape (Brick Books).


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