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  • Established Fiction
  • David Staines

The year 2014 witnessed a plethora of major writers publishing distinctive volumes of short stories and novels. Although there was no outstanding book in this year’s array of titles, there were many important books that emphasize the remarkable level of contemporary fiction in Canada.

One of the barometers of the quality of fiction is the number of reviews of the year’s books from outside Canada. The Guardian and the New York Times Book Review, for example, usually pay strict attention only to the Atwoods and Munros of our land. More and more, however, Canadian writers are being published in England and the United States too, and the Guardian and the Book Review are now paying frequent attention to them, often in long and detailed critical articles. [End Page 199]

There are many collections of short stories meriting attention. In Mark Blagrave’s Salt in the Wounds, twelve stories focus on the mineral salt, a delight to some people and, if taken in excess, an inexplicable guide to the ruination of others. There are Bill Gaston’s hard yet compassionate views on the contemporary world around him in Juliet Was a Surprise. Kathy Page’s Paradise & Elsewhere is a series of deeply upsetting stories in barely recognizable settings from times remotely distant as well as the present. And H. Nigel Thomas’s When the Bottom Falls Out and Other Stories centres relentlessly and uneasily on contemporary people on their Caribbean island or in Montreal as they try to live according to their own choices in life. Four collections deserve special notice: Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, K.D. Miller’s All Saints: Stories, Diane Schoemperlen’s By the Book: Stories and Pictures, and Kathleen Winter’s The Freedom in American Songs: Stories. Each of these books shows its author embarking on new paths in their telling use of the short-story form.

In her acknowledgements at the end of Stone Mattress, Atwood defines her purpose:

These nine tales owe a debt to tales through the ages. Calling a piece of short fiction a “tale” removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales. We may safely assume that all tales are fiction, whereas a “story” might well be a true story about what we usually agree to call “real life,” as well as a short story that keeps within the boundaries of social realism. The Ancient Mariner tells a tale. “Give me a copper coin and I will tell you a golden tale,” the late Robertson Davies was fond of saying.

In her stated purpose as well as in the stories themselves, Atwood is the mature, sophisticated writer capturing supposedly mature people as they grapple with their many traumas and nostalgic memories. In the three interconnected stories that open the volume, “Alphinland,” “Revenant,” and “Dark Lady,” the protagonist, Constance Starr, a mature novelist of the Alphinland chronicle series, remembers a time—back when she was “young enough to find poverty glamorous”—when she had a modestly talented but faithless poet boyfriend; another woman had ruined their relationship. Now, with old age encroaching on her, Constance meets the other woman fifty years later and discovers that it was the poet who dumped her. Meanwhile, the poet, now sentimental about his own past, waxes nostalgic with his third wife; his form of nostalgia, Atwood suggests, is only another form of his male privilege.

Throughout these stories, indeed throughout this volume, Atwood shows her command of literature and art as she places these characters in their own milieux. With a remarkable and natural facility, she reveals [End Page 200] her characters through their own inabilities to achieve the highest calling of their artistic endeavours. And she is unsparing in her scathing indictment of academic scholars and interlopers, who crave the modest attention of the writers whose works they are endlessly devouring and destroying.

The title story of the volume is a detailed account of one woman’s revenge for a crime of sexual violence in a sixties small town. On a cruise through...


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pp. 199-224
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