Back of Beyond

by Sarah Ellis,
ISBN: 0888992696

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Children`s Books
by Donna Nurse

Though Sarah Ellis gears her collection of short stories toward the adolescent reader, her charaters possess enough emotional truth to captivate adults as well. Ellis's authentic rendering of teenage voice and perspective, in addition to her use of complex, literary metaphor, enable her stories to transcend audiences as well as categories.

Still, the often eerie and inexplicable incidents in Back of Beyond suggest that the book belongs to the genre of science fiction. If so, it is less Star Trek than Twilight Zone, for Ellis's young protagonists do not so much encounter alien forces outside the known world, as pass through discrete realms within our own. In "Tunnel", the six-year-old Ib tumbles in and out of a faerie world in the short time it takes for her teenage sitter to race her from one end of an isolated culvert to the other. In "Pinch", Maia takes a friend to see the mansion she visited the night before, only to find construction workers in the preliminary stages of building.

One way Ellis makes such uncanny events believable is by providing readers with more than one witness. Ken, the seventeen-year-old babysitter in "Tunnel", confirms Ib's faerie experience when he recalls meeting the same sprite-like creatures in the same culvert as a young boy. And in "Pinch", the fact that Maia's mother also spent an evening in the mysterious manor confirms to readers that the finished mansion did exist.

Indeed, witnesses prove crucial to the stories' credibility, since the characters' shaky psychological state often cause us to question their judgement. Certainly, it seems more than coincidental that hidden systems reveal themselves at moments of great emotional need.

Frequently, these episodes help characters reconcile themselves to the loss of a loved one. In "Sisters", for example, Charlotte adopts a pair of aging sisters as surrogate grandparents after her older sister runs away. The lively memories that animate the women's lives compensate for the unacknowledged ghost that haunts Charlotte's unhappy home.

Such debilitating departures mark unusually painful comings of age: events that irrevocably alter the pleasant predictability of childhood. "Happen" offers a near-allegorical account of one teenager's longing to return to a less complicated time, the years before her grandmother's death. Picking blackberries, she comes upon a beautiful garden inhabited by a friendly girl. The pair while away the hours eating peaches, and revelling in the sights and smells of their idyllic surroundings. "Happen" evocatively symbolizes one girl's blissful reversion to innocence.

Although many of the most inscrutable events unfold in the midst of everyday life, they somehow manage to elude conventional time. Ellis's stories consider the possibility of divergent spheres. The girl in "Happen" remarks, "When Dad and I drove out here from Ontario, it started to seem, especially around day three on the prairies, that we weren't really moving, that the earth was just turning under us. But was that the right direction? I spun an apple on the table and pretended I was the sun. I thought about time zones. But my brain just couldn't get it."

In "Knife", the seventeen-year-old Curtis reminisces about the summer he turned eleven, the year he befriended the playful seal that swam in the waters around his cottage. The seal's submerged world provides a wonderful analogy for a simultaneous, concealed cosmos flowing in accordance with its own chronometer.

The story "Potato" submits the gentlest of social commentaries in its suggestion that overlooked groups become manifest if we pay close enough attention. This truth is dramatized when fourteen-year-old Selina wanders a seedy neighbourhood in search of her missing brother. "At first I couldn't see anyone we could talk to. But then I started to notice them, people in doorways and on benches, the people who lived there. It was like one of those puzzle drawings where you search for the bunny in the tree trunk and the frog in the clouds.

"We talked to.people who seemed so old that I didn't think they could still be alive and to kids my own age, younger maybe. We talked to people surrounded by bags and shopping carts of stuff and to people who had one styrofoam cup."

Most significantly, Ellis's stories imply that extraordinary experiences frequently take place within the context of everyday life. In "Sisters", Charlotte recounts the way in which hours spent in the company of her adopted grandmothers could magically accelerate. "The sisters talked to each other and to Mum. The words floated over my head as I cut and pasted.. We had tea and the afternoon disappeared." In Back of Beyond, even the simplest of time-altering pleasures allow for fleeting admittance into a mystical dimension. 

Donna Nurse is a Toronto writer.


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