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Past And Present
by Dayv James-French

In Kenneth Radu's Distant Relations the connections between what was and what is a deftly brought together KENNETH RADU limits the frame of Distant Relations (Oberon, 245 pages, $14.95 paper) to a single day in the life of Vera Dobrin, slowed by an erratic heart as she prepares for a family reunion. The pace is leisurely., As Vera rests, her memories connect the past to the present of a life where "there's just not enough time to understand everything you need to understand."

At the age of ten, Vera was dragged behind a plough horse and injured one eye. Now 74 (in 1984), she has a particularly synoptic moral view. Orphaned, she married to escape the home of an abusive aunt, then worked as a char to, support herself, her husband, Boris (who "lived like a fungus on a rock"), and their five children. The numbing routine of her life is broken by the arrival of a handsome black doctor, Amsterdam. While Vera is willing to settle for physical closeness, Amsterdam brings a larger world into their relationship. The terrible bombing of Hiroshi a becomes Vera's touchstone, for the folly of, moral expediency: "the human appetite for sex and food . . . and for death, was boundless."

The gentle, feminine sensibility at the heart of the novel is not always apparent through the story's subtle layers of poetic language and grim descriptions of everyday tragedy. Many of the episodes in Vera's life are familiar from other novels ? the impoverished lives of the mean?spirited and unloved are a dramatic staple ? but Radu has brought a fair amount of insight to the subject. The "distant" relations of the title, those connections between what was and what is, are deftly brought together in the last 50 pages or so, making Distant Relations end neatly, if a little sooner than it should.

Kristjana Gunnars defines her intentions early in The Prowler (Red Deer College Press, unpaginated, $19.95 cloth/$9.95 paper). The protagonist states,

It is a relief not to be writing a story. Not to be imprisoned by character and setting'. By plot, development, nineteenth?century mannerisms.

In 167 chapters, none longer than two pages, Gunnars skims lightly over the in merging memories of I a woman's girlhood in Iceland during the last years of the Second World War.

Without plot, development, or any traditional mannerisms of fiction save narration, the non?linear chronology makes a demand on the reader's attention that the text does not always reward. The brevity of each scene makes it difficult for a mood to be sustained, and an abstract authorial voice keeps the reader from emotional involvement: "The writer is given to resorting to differently coloured light bulbs. To place the story in an inappropriate light."

The Prowler has a cool, detached quality. A compelling story is obIscured by the formulaic postures of Darlene Barry Quaife's Bone Bird (Turnstone Press, 234 pages, $10.95 paper). Aislinn is a young woman in a dying logging town on Vancouver Island, desperate to escape down?island, but bound by her invalid mother and her responsibility for the family general store. Her grandparents are Native and relate historical tales of triumph over adversity, to which Aislinn seems peculiarly unresponsive; it's as if she had no life before the novel's beginning. She is drawn without real personality, only characterizations.

There are some satisfactions in the novel's orderly progression, but it too often reads as though each element were added from the outside ? now a stranger comes to town, there's an episode of near?violence, here's the obligatory sex scene. The construction is too visible. And Quaife's writing overwhelms Aislinn's story. Still, readers' not stopped short by a reference to a human tongue as "that warm, moist slab of speech" may find Bone Bird an interesting variation on the stifled?woman?seeks?escape theme.

I By contrast, Tara Nanayakkara's To Wish Upon a Rainbow (Creative Publishers, 277 pages, $9.95 paper) shows no technique at all. It's not so much written as it is typed. Badly. Emphasized words are sometimes in italics, sometimes in block capitals, and sometimes capitalized within inverted commas. Quotations remain' open. Words are misspelled and oddly used. Watching for errata gave me something to do while reading To Wish Upon a Rainbow, which is numbingly dull.

Perhaps the book sounded interesting to an editor much too busy to read it: a young married couple of best?selling authors take on the responsibility of raising their niece after her parents are killed in a car accident. And the niece is dying of aplastic anemia. But Nanayakkara, who began the novel when she was 19 years old, has no feel for tension or structure, no control of language, and no ability to create character. She narrates the story all on one level, a relentless monologue entirely lacking in style. Here's a typical paragraph:

It hurt me a little to realize that more time had to pass before Mandy would learn to accept me with all the same trust and faith as she did her father's brother. After all, in her eyes I was just an aunt by marriage. Imagine 277 pages of that.

On the acknowledgements page, rather than thanking any "loved ones and/or special organizations," Nanayakkara notes, Music is the canvas on which I paint my stories and without it, there would be no author by my name. So I must thank the record industry for helping me discover this ability to turn out stories.

And there's an equally weirdly uninformative and unnecessary History of Westerly, a city that scarcely figures in the novel, in which Nanayakkara reveals, "Although it won't be featured on any given map of the Country, you are bound to happen across it in most of my books." Books. Plural. A chilling thought.


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