Trouble & Desire

150 pages,
ISBN: 1895387590

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Best Two Feet Forward
by Vivian Palin

"My father has to pull in by anyone he sees walking on the road and offer them a lift. He must buy gas at both gas stations even though he does not need it...He must check on all the old people to assure them that the new doctor has given them the right pills. The new doctor has only been in the bay for eighteen years."
"Mrs. Whitton's War" captures with easy familiarity the community "around the bay." Every phrase in this short story is written with an authenticity that suggests the author traces her roots to a small rural community, and the cover notes confirm that Robin McGrath lives in Beachy Cove, Conception Bay, Newfoundland.
The intimacy in "Mrs. Whitton's War" is not only of place, but also, breathtakingly, of emotional comprehension. Described for us with childlike simplicity is the experience of a young girl lying beside her snoring father, who is wearing nothing but "baggy drawers". One of nine children, it is easy to understand why the girl would not want to sleep, treasuring each moment alone with her father. Mrs. Whitton, their hostess for the night, cannot accept the situation; that is her loss. As her protestations subside into solitary weeping in the kitchen, the girl can only listen and wonder at her distress. Told in the first person, we never "hear" the narrator's name; the inwardness of this precious memory makes this appropriate. McGrath achieves depth of feeling, and conveys it with guileless style.
The other thoroughly gorgeous story in this debut collection is "A Wishbone in the Sea". It too focuses on the experience of a girl, a nine-year-old who is learning about death through the dignified, painless-as-possible passing of her godmother. Here McGrath manages a mixed chronology effortlessly; while Willa, the adult woman, is revisiting the place where her godmother died, she finds something that elegantly resolves a regret she'd had as a child.
In both these stories, a loving, safe world is assumed: the child's world-view. In both we are privileged viewers of tightly-knit, interdependent, caring communities. Family bonds are strong, and examples of unconditional love are unassumingly displayed. Nowhere in these two stories of childhood reminiscence does McGrath lapse into sentimentality or a forced sweetness, potential pitfalls of their genre.
Unfortunately, the collection is uneven. Some of the other stories have the looseness and clutter of early drafts, and rarely strike the clear tone of the two stories placed at the front of the book.
The cover notes tells us that McGrath, "an internationally known Eskimologist with twenty-two years of field experience...has produced a wide range of publications on aboriginal literature and culture." With such a wealth of knowledge, it's a shame that we're not treated to more than a taste of it in McGrath's fiction. There is the odd drop. In The Parish House, Kit is (as they might put it in Newfoundland) "after" seducing an ex-priest; she shows him and his friends a dance step taught her by an Inuk in Bathurst Inlet. The freshness of detail throws the reader into the room and the heat of the dance.
Several stories recount love affairs. These stories do not enchant, or offer insight, and they feel as though they were taken from personal journal notes or from conversations over coffee with women friends. Fine places to start, but the ingredients are never transposed into art. The final story, "The Bone Stands Alone", set for the most part in Montezuma, a village in Costa Rica, seems like an excuse to use travel diary notes. Characters fail to engage, and there is an almost total absence of plot.
No doubt McGrath has been encouraged as a writer of fiction; when she "writes from the heart," she has the power to open others' hearts. The temptation to put out a first collection of prose fiction might, however, have been resisted and postponed had she or her editor used the first two stories as a standard. Had that measure been employed, the entire collection might have marked the exciting arrival of a new writer from the Atlantic Provinces. Considering what McGrath is capable of, the collection as a whole remains frustratingly premature. 

Vivian Palin is a Toronto writer and editor. Being of partly Hebridean origin, she has recorded (on both audio and video) many previously unrecorded stories told by Gaelic-speakers on Cape Breton Island.


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