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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Madeline Bassnett

In Cruelties (Anansi, 160 pages, $19.95 paper), Lise Bissonnette exposes the ways in which we strike, sometimes unwittingly, at the foundations of each other's souls. She gives us fifteen stories, as well crafted and succinct as the cruelties themselves, bound together with a thin thread of eroticism.

These are stories of exposure-intimate enough to draw the reader in, but maintaining the chilling distance of a confession booth, both revealing and concealing the narrator. This self-revelation forces the reader into the role of avid voyeur. And it becomes a pleasure to watch the characters perform their sordid acts, to uncover their (and our) desires. Each story adds a level of intrigue, another way to degrade a human being, to discover another's breaking point.

A short epitaph begins the stories, as though already lamenting or commemorating the unavoidable conclusion. Actions are presented as fait accompli, as fixed games played out between people.

Often the cruelties are reciprocal, like in "The Viper", where a plan by a seemingly devoted husband to drive his wife mad is cunningly turned on its head. Or in "The Knife", where a young man who is calculating in his romantic choice discovers that the woman he covets is even more scheming than he.

Bissonnette invites us into many realms. The narrator of "The Lovers", who has enough seductive power to kill a man, is an erotic painting, "all shuddering rosy pink, from the most enticing to the weariest, from the areola of my one visible breast to my clitoris". "The Columbarium" is about revenge from beyond the grave: two dead women expose men's common cruelties in parchments found in their creamation urns.

Sometimes the character who appears most considerate is the cruelest. The insurance broker in "The Witness" who spends his days watching concernfully over his young neighbour, concocts a scenario which hurts the woman, and leaves us wondering whether it was thoughtless meddling or the intentional destruction of someone he couldn't have.

Bissonnette is a skillful and exacting writer. She gives us just enough information to understand the situation and no more. Perhaps she is playing with us, revealing our hidden cruelties to us, asking us to consider whether we too have left devastated lovers in our wake. There is no respite for the characters in her stories, just as there is none for the reader. We refuse to stop. The curtain opens, another person enters the confessional, and we listen, our mouths wet with anticipation. 

Madeline Bassnett


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