#947 The subtleties of love

The Crooked Thing
by Mary MacDonald

Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2020
$22.95 / 9781773860312

Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy

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The title of Mary MacDonald’s debut short story collection alludes to W.B. Yeats’ “The Young Man’s Song”: “O love is the crooked thing,/ There is nobody wise enough,/ To find out all that is in it.” MacDonald organized her 17 stories into two sections, “Love’s Long Contour,” and “Bend to Love.” Despite the thematic encasing, these are not the linked short stories of James Joyce’s Dubliners or Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Settings include Vancouver, Toronto, Tanzania, Paris, and rural Norway; narrator/ protagonists (all selections are first-person) range in age, and include male and female humans (as well as animals) with varied occupations and interests. Nor does romantic love dominate here; love of place, familial love, absent or lost love, interspecies love, and general love of humankind are also prominent.

Recurring motifs span the senses. The sea is significant, in all its mystery, power, beauty, and fickleness. Cycling, associated with freedom and rhythms, wends its way into many stories. Music is integral: not only are some titles taken from songs; songs are integral to plots in a few cases. Much narration is through the memory’s prism, with characters shaped by childhood abuse and absent or missing relatives. With the textures of fiction, as with the subtleties of love, MacDonald shines.

Mary MacDonald. Photo courtesy Whistler Writers Festival

The stories in “Love’s Long Contour,” while varying in tone from airy and nonchalant to gripping and poignant, are more opaque than those in the second section, and tend toward magic realism, surrealism, and even absurdity. The first two stray farthest from realism. “Le Chapeau,” set in Paris just after the First World War, juxtaposes the narratives of a sparrow and a milliner whose fates are intertwined by the cruelties of high fashion. “Almost Like Life,” an apparent homage to Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, as well as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, is set in a theatre whose set is an operating theatre. The rhinoceros narrator, who finds the plot increasingly frustrating, muses “This is all so absurd. The director has entwined the actors and the audience. None of us is a passive observer” (p. 24) – a fitting set up for the collection.

Surreal elements in essentially realist stories can produce markedly differing effects. In “You Can’t Drive to Kaua ‘i” Chester recalls the apex of his life: he had a partner and worked as a ferryman, making short runs from Granville Island across the harbour. When a strong easterly wind beset Vancouver, Chester set sail for Kaua ‘i, only to find himself accompanied by a surreal, monk-like character who spoke French. When a storm blew up, Chester, who could not swim, set out flares, forfeited his position at the helm, and had faith in the ways of the monk, who dissolved when the rescue boat arrived. In the present, Chester, now a single bus driver, clutches his dream, determined to sail to Kaua ‘i, if he can acquire a bigger engine. The story, both whimsical and touching, could be read as a testament to the romantic imagination or the folly of same.

Interdit, Paris,” on the other hand, is dominantly joyful. MacDonald deftly juxtaposes the mystique around French author, actress, and mime Collette with the friendship of two young Sorbonne students. Our narrator, a Canadian, gets off to a flying start in the City of Lights: she and Réne, a dashing blond Norwegian poet, dine, wine, and cycle in their leisure time. When Réne begs off a trip to Père Lachaise Cemetery, Ayleigh makes the spiritual odyssey alone. In the labyrinthine graveyard, time is suspended, as Ayleigh, entranced by the tombstones of icons such as Jim Morrison and Marcel Proust, cannot locate the resting place of her idol until darkness descends and the cemetery’s gates close. Laying her offerings of white roses and brandy on the sod, Ayleigh enters a further altered state — communion with Colette, who offers her writerly advice — and is transported to a theatre where Colette is a trapeze artist. When Colette shifts the discourse to the Second World War, Ayleigh is again transported — this time to northern France and the horrors her soldier grandfather experienced. As Colette, brandy in hand, waves goodbye, Ayleigh’s reverie concludes, and she learns Réne is nearby. As the pair cycle back to the city centre, Ayleigh is rife with poetry and at one with Paris.

Mary MacDonald. Photo by David Wotherspoon

Darker stories of absent or lost love add a haunting quality to the collection. In “Chasing Rabbits,” with its echoes of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and evocation of Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole, the unnamed narrator links her life with her two dogs, who are placid and carefree until they spy a rabbit hole, when they become feral, to her own chasing of rabbits. On her birthday, “the black clouds gather” (p. 39) and she goes down the rabbit hole of memory, vainly attempting to comprehend the activities of her now-absent brother, who, after suffering abuse at the hands of his mother, did inexplicable and often unconscionable things — abandoning their prize bike, deserting his sister, and perhaps killing a young girl who may have been his daughter. The narrator calls into question her own moral culpability in the killing, as, as an adult, she witnessed (at a distance) apparent abuse by that brother of the girl and fled. This powerful story about behaviour turning on a dime, violence begetting violence, and the slipperiness of memory is also outstanding for an image of impermanence in the form of a graffiti artist whose canvas is a retaining wall; as the tide rises, his creation disappears, and he must replace it.

“Other Voices, Other Rooms,” an Eleanor Rigby-like story, sets the present against a period 40 years earlier, when the protagonist was cut down in her prime as a ballerina by an injury that cost her not only her career but also a love affair. The catalyst of a CBC broadcast on the migrant crisis spurs an interior monologue about origins and migrations, the protagonist herself having immigrated to Canada at the age of 3 to escape impoverished post-war Holland. In the wintry Toronto of the present, she enters a green grocery, a microcosm of multiculturalism, where she impulsively steals bread. A new immigrant from Syria strikes up a food-centred conversation, eventually asking her to join his family for dinner. When she declines, he presents her with some naan; she sneaks her stolen bread back to its shelf and returns to her apartment, where she cooks dinner for her housemate, her demented mother. The story ends with a blend of images: the imagined past of the Syrian, and her memories of herself as a ballerina, and those of ancestral Holland.

Love’s possibilities are the focus of two of the lighter stories in “Love’s Long Contour.” “The Same River Twice” asks whether a romance can be rekindled after unfaithfulness. On her birthday, the narrator reflects on returning home the month before to discover that her partner had slept with her best friend. She reacted by ending the relationship and trying on a new identity as a cyclist with a new name. But David repeatedly coincidentally reappears in her life. The narrative focuses on a farm dinner, several months after the break up, at which they both appear with dates, Lisa wearing a sapphire bracelet, a birthday gift from David a few years earlier. The promising rural setting turns sour after a guided tour: the dinner is mediocre, rain threatens the el fresco repast, their dates turn their attention to other diners, and Lisa misplaces her bracelet. After much searching in the damp darkness, David finds the bracelet, but the reader is left up in the air about whether one can be in the same river twice. “Love is the Crooked Thing,” the culminating title in the first section, explores several dimensions of love: the feelings of the Vancouver narrator toward her 25-year-old son whom she is visiting in Norway, those she comes to feel for his girlfriend, the absence of romantic love in her own life, and her love of landscape. Her summer adventures with the pair end in a harrowing kayaking trip and a proposition from lustful young Anders. The narrator returns to Vancouver a more daring person than she left it.

The selections in “Bend to Love” are more realist in style as they illuminate familial love and, often, deal with the loss of same. Music is most integral in “Simple Gifts.” The reader is immediately told, “Her life was the cello. Her language was music.” The story demonstrates this, in both the plot and the interior monologue: everything, including windshield wipers, has a tempo to Alexandra. However, the 20-year-old Master’s student not only cannot play the cello but also skips several weeks of classes when she returns to Toronto from Vancouver after her parents’ funeral, which she arranged and at which she performed. The story takes its title from an Aaron Copeland arrangement, part of a concert Alexandra takes her one new, enthusiastic and doting pupil on Valentine’s Day; not only is the pupil a simple gift, so too are the tickets, which came from Alexandra’s boyfriend. This is a quiet, yet poignant, study in loss, loneliness, and the healing powers of love.

In “The Rain Won’t Come,” a Canadian eye surgeon in rural Tanzania learns that his mother has died in Vancouver. In the world he currently inhabits, a 15-minute operation gives the crowds of patients who line up each day their vision back, the rain can maroon one, and scheduling appointments doesn’t work. Dreaming that night, the surgeon experiences his mother revealing the personal history she was closed-mouthed about in life. Mother and son in dream and death have an intimacy they hadn’t known in life before his morning flight to Vancouver.

“The New Dinner” is a fitting story on which to end. The older female recounts the one-month vacation in a cabin she, her husband, and dog took. The stay was simple but oddly romantic. The elephant in the room is her husband’s brain surgery, which initially sparked strong community support, but, once his condition improved, attention faded. Now back home, the narrator focuses on gardening, which induces a state in which she is “humming with memory” (p. 193). The pair’s solitude is broken, pleasantly, when relatives and neighbours drop in, bringing food and drink, and the satisfying, varied, and lovely collection culminates in an octet dining and conversing, the dog at their feet, and the garden abuzz with a conversation of its own.

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Ginny Ratsoy

In the midst of a metamorphosis of her own, Ginny Ratsoy was honoured to accept the invitation of playwright Marcia Johnson to write the foreword to Serving Elizabeth, slated for release by Scirocco Drama in October, 2020. Ratsoy’s latest academic publication is about a wonderful third-age learning organization, The Kamloops Adult Learners Society (KALS) in No Straight Lines: Local Leadership and the Path from Government to Government in Small Cities, edited by Terry Kading (University of Calgary Press, 2018), reviewed by Michael Lait in The Ormsby Review. She is delighted to add that her recent retirement from academia has made it possible for her to join the board of directors of KALS, for whom she has instructed since 2007. Editor’s note: thus far in 2020, Ginny Ratsoy has reviewed books by Lauren Soloy, Nick Tooke, Alix Ohlin, Natelle Fitzgerald, Steven Price, and Sarah Louise Butler for The Ormsby Review.

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