Strange, beguiling… sensuous, verdant… wicked.. surprising and perfectly executed: a great review of Kathy Page’s Paradise & Elsewhere from Stephen W. Beattie, special to the National Post.
“I like to look,” says the narrator of one of Kathy Page’s strange, beguiling new stories. “In trains, buses, gardens, at films, even those in languages I don’t understand, on pavements and curbstones, in mirrors and water there’s much to see and I look. I look at faces, the folds around eyes, the sculpture of flesh that grows with time to reflect habits of thought and feeling, the many textures and colours of skin.” As this passage indicates, Page’s narrator is no mere voyeur; she is an active participant in the observations she indulges, a careful recorder of detail and nuance. The practice of looking “isn’t only a passive pleasure, a drinking in,” she assures us. “Looking can be hard.”
It is difficult not to read this as a gloss on what a writer does: A writer is an observer, a watcher, the one on the periphery collecting and cataloguing and compiling people, objects and events into structured and coherent units. The writer’s individual personality shows through in what she sees, without question, but also, and equally importantly, in how she sees.
Kathy Page and Claire Battershill see very differently, though their respective visions are not entirely devoid of commonalities. Page is a more oblique observer: Her fiction is sensuous and verdant, grafting lyrical prose onto stories and situations that appear almost as myths or legends. Battershill, by contrast, is more direct, her prose less adorned, her subjects less self-consciously idiosyncratic. There is strangeness in Battershill’s stories, although the stories themselves are less rococo, more grounded in a reliably familiar world.
“Sensation,” one of the early stories in Battershill’s debut collection, Circus (McClelland & Stewart, 207 pp; $22), has an identifiably uncanny aspect to it. On her 16th birthday, Annie’s father gives her a blue tent, which they set up in the family living room. The tent becomes a minor cause célèbre when word starts circulating throughout the neighbourhood that spending time inside its folds results in a kind of spiritual euphoria. What begins as a father-and-daughter bonding experience becomes a collective fascination (not to say delusion) on the part of the people who line up outside Annie’s house for a chance to spend a few minutes inside the tent.
Battershill wisely leaves the provenance of the tent’s spiritual nature unspecified; is there something inherently mystical in the tent itself, or do the figures from the neighbourhood succumb to the power of suggestion as a means of convincing themselves they have had a transcendent experience? This indirection is typical of Battershill’s best work here; the story “Brothers” — about a family who buys a property without realizing that they are also adopting two aging siblings, one blind and one deaf, who have worked the land as shepherds for most of their lives and have no intention of vacating — is similarly open-ended.
Despite a certain eccentric quality, “Brothers” is fairly straightforward in its approach, as is the opener, “A Gentle Luxury,” about a lonely man who gives himself a deadline of 31 days to find love on the Internet, and the closer, about a woman named Edna, who takes her husband to New York City for a blissful child-free vacation, only to return alone after the husband dies unexpectedly. “A Gentle Luxury” is arguably the most obvious story in the collection; it telegraphs its situation and never takes off in any unexpected direction. “Quite Everyday Looking” is better in this regard, fracturing its chronology and shuttling between the husband and wife touring the Big Apple and the new widow sitting in the airport waiting room, watching another family’s interactions while waiting for her plane home.
Like Page’s anonymous protagonist, Edna in “Quite Everyday Looking” is an observer, but her process of observation is freighted with melancholy. Page’s story, by contrast, is not melancholic, but wicked. After being subjected to a steady stream of her loud-mouthed sister’s bravado and narcissistic self-regard, the quietly observant narrator gets her revenge in a moment of reversal that is typical of the movement of many of the stories in Paradise & Elsewhere(Biblioasis, 160 pp; $18.95).
Unlike Battershill, who for the most part cleaves to recognizable characters and settings, Page presents her readers with frankly extravagant scenarios: an archaeological tour of an Earth that has become little more than a dried-out husk; the shores of a bay where a lighthouse keeper takes in a transformed sea creature he insists is his lost wife; a paradisaical oasis in the middle of a desert where the lives of the natives are disrupted by the arrival of a parched and desperate stranger. That story, “Of Paradise,” contains another moment of reversal, perfectly timed and executed, and so surprising it forces its reader to reconsider everything that has gone before. It also highlights one of Page’s repeated tropes: the insertion of an outsider or tourist into a foreign environment.
The use of an interloper is handy as a surrogate for the reader, a means of making the uncanny acceptable. Page recalls Angela Carter in these stories, employing fable and myth, along with Gothic elements and moments of horror, to jar her reader out of a settled complacency. The climax of the brief tale “Lambing” is among the most startling in recent memory; it is all the more horrific for the matter-of-fact mode in which Page presents it. Likewise the journalism professor’s dreadful wilderness discovery in “We, the Trees,” a story that involves a grotesque inversion of the “back to nature” ethos.
Throughout Paradise & Elsewhere, Page exhibits an impeccable control over the diverse voices and milieus she creates, something Battershill occasionally struggles with. The stories in Circus frequently go on too long, and the sparse linguistic style sometimes bleeds over into cliché. (The observation in “Two-Man Luge,” for example, that participants in competitive sports feel both the rush of victory and the anguish of defeat likely goes without saying.) A couple of Page’s stories (“Clients” and “My Fees”) seem, by contrast, a bit too wilfully obscure and underdeveloped. At their best, however, both authors provide ways of seeing the world and its inhabitants that feel fresh and exuberant. “I like to look,” says Page’s narrator. And, yes, so do we.
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