This collection of thirteen essays by Constance Rooke on modern and contemporary Canadian fiction brings together work published from 1978 to the present; four of the pieces have never before appeared in print. The figures and fictions that Rooke examines are so rich and varied that I can only list them here. She discusses open-heartedness in Mavis Gallant, food in Alice Munro, age and self-determination in Margaret Laurence, women in The Double Hook, P. K. Page's poetry (the only poetry to be discussed), "Atwood's Hands" and her Handmaid's Tale. She also provides insight into some central Canadian fiction not written by women in her commentary on Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter and John Metcalf's The Lady Who Sold Furniture and "The Teeth of My Father."
The book's suggestive title comes from a phrase in a novella by Mavis Gallant. In the introductory title essay Rooke explains this phrase's relevance to her feminist aesthetic, one that identifies a reader response-like "theory of intimacy" (focused on "the reader's personal encounter with the author") that helps Rooke understand various women writers' apparent "fear of the open heart." Rooke equates [End Page 589] this fear "with Canada and with the Scots-Presbyterian repression of feeling that helps to create our notorious garrison mentality," but it is "a female way of saying it." Many of these essays (especially those of Gallant, Munro, and Atwood) involve us in the "gender-specific" dimensions of this "female wording of a basic Canadian mind set."
This description might suggest that Rooke's essays dwell on a feminist version of the well-worn garrison theme. Happily, this is not the case, for Rooke's "theory" is not really applied to the essays in the volume, which turn out to be excellent individual studies of particular authors and texts that are united by Rooke's own open-hearted quest and stance. The release she seeks can be found in Rooke's subjects as well as in her self-inventive textual romancing; she emphasizes that the critic must encounter and create herself as she writes and speaks, that she as critic must replace her fear with a psychological and textual openness that is liberating and self-willed. After all, Rooke argues, "human beings . . . simultaneously present and create themselves through speech."
I enjoyed watching Rooke present and create herself. The double movement gives her readings a sense of candor and excitement that does not appear very often in Canadian criticism. I have no idea whether anything Rooke says is right. It does not matter. For once, here is Canadian criticism that is full of insight and fun to read. Rooke is a critic who can make you laugh (I think in particular of the piece "Munro's Food," a gastronomic romp illustrating Rooke's conviction that food, like fiction, "sticks," and of the wonderfully contorted misreading that finds a happy ending to Coming Through Slaughter). For once, there is a personality behind the observations that is playful and perceptive, energetic and urbane. Rooke opens up. She deliberately invites us to read her as well as her texts. As she says: "Whatever idle or auspicious day-dreaming it may entail, reading is also a response to another person's urgent speech. As in life, it is a response as well to what may (or may not) be written between the lines." In this case the lines, and everything between them, are worth our response.