BOOK REVIEW: A mind-bending collection of stories about transformation and adaptation, full of startling ideas, capricious characters and uncanny goings-on.
“Paradise Elsewhere,” stories by Kathy Page.
Readers can only take so much of happy lives and promised lands in fiction. We are a cruel bunch who revel in Schadenfreude: Characters must suffer to be believable, their hopes and loves challenged and hard-won. Kathy Page, a British-born but now Canada-based writer, knows this, and has delighted readers with strange, unsettling novels where outsiders struggle to get their bearings in hostile environments.
“Paradise & Elsewhere” (Biblioasis, 160 pages, $15.95) sees Page doing what she does best, but in miniature. Her second collection of short stories, 14 in all, gravitates more toward “elsewhere,” the far side of paradise. In her author’s note, Page describes her tales as being an exploration into “the hinterland between realism and myth,” her worlds’ alternative realities “in which readers can both lose and find themselves.” Even if we end up more lost than found, it all makes for a singular reading experience.
Many stories take travelers to off-the-beaten-track locations. In “The Ancient Siddannese,” a guide shows tourists around the ruins of Sidda, a city built by the blind. In “G’Ming” and “Lak-ha,” Page impresses with her treatment of landscape and language, constructing the former while dismantling the latter. And in “Of Paradise” and “Saving Grace,” new arrivals to remote towns risk losing everything they possess.
Other stories come across as tall tales, extravagantly outlandish, such as “Low Tide,” where a female sea creature emerges from the water, sloughs off her sleek skin and goes to live in a lighthouse with a man who claims to be her husband. We learn to suspend disbelief and simply go with Page’s flow. Along with these tales of the unexplained are several tales of the unexpected: “We, the Trees,” “Lambing” and “I Like to Look” beguile us with their oddities, then knock us sideways with their endings.
The deeper we immerse ourselves in Page’s fantasies, the more disoriented we become. On the few occasions that she allows us secure footing by switching to conventional characters doing conventional things, we appreciate the purchase but soon yearn to fall back down the rabbit hole to be flummoxed all over again by otter-like women, sisters with Medusa stares and twins called Right and Left. Some stories conjure up a magic that makes us think of past fabulists such as Angela Carter and Italo Calvino. Those stories that restructure language and subvert accepted norms are reminiscent of present practitioners like Ben Marcus. Indeed, Page’s story “The Kissing Disease,” about a deadly kissing virus, comes from a similar mold as Marcus’ “The Flame Alphabet,” a novel in which children’s speech is toxic.
“Language stretches between us,” Page tells us at one point, “a new country, vast, intricate, ours.” In another story we hear that windowpanes have been “faulted so that the whole world can seem drunken-strange.” “Paradise & Elsewhere” is composed of such elastic language and distorted reflections, each story boldly illuminating as it playfully confounds.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.
Paradise and Elsewhere comes out in the USA this month. Here in Upcoming4me is an article about the background to the book, and how one the stories, “Low Tide,” was inspired by a trip to Oregon.
For years, I carried the idea of a new short story collection in the back of my mind, yet did nothing about it. Procrastination? Of course, but in my defense, short stories are far harder to administer than novels are. Scattered in the filing system, they lurk in various degrees of completeness: published, unpublished, in progress, embryonic, forgotten; some are crying to be sent somewhere, and others for help, which may include radical surgery or even dismemberment prior to use elsewhere. Add to this that agents and publishers tend to discourage the production of short fiction, and you’ll see that it’s easy to let a year, or three, or five go by, and so I did, until a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of Biblioasis, a dynamic indie publisher described in the Canadian trade press as “the gold standard for short fiction.”
Encouraged, I gathered my stories together and began to arrange them. There were two kinds of writing: the regular realistic, contemporary kind of story, and something else rather hard to describe – stories that have a mythical, magical, uncanny, futuristic or fable-like, quality. I liked both kinds, but had to admit that they did not mix particularly well. Belatedly, it dawned on me that I had two collections, not one.
It was exciting to put the two books together at once, and especially so to see the many ways the fabulist stories in Paradise & Elsewhere connected with and amplified each other. For example, there are recurrent motifs and themes: travel, trade, money and sex: what happens when a stranger arrives at the gate, or on the shore. What are we looking for when we make journeys? What kind of relationships do we create? In one story, a group of media people venture out of the city in pursuit of a story – a journey which only one of them will, barely, survive. In others, travelers return home after many years, arrive at a desert oasis, or visit the relics of ancient civilizations. The stories began to talk.
I sent both books to John Metcalf, the editor at Biblioasis. Within a week he made contact to acquire the realistic collection. I asked about Paradise & Elsewhere, but he hadn’t read it. Three months later, we began editing The Two of Us and he still had not. When pressed, John admitted that he had a prejudice against non-realistic writing, and said that he tried to discourage his authors from taking that path. Still, I begged, since I already had taken it, would he not take a look? Dreading both the read and the letter he would have to write to me, John agreed to at least run his eyes over the MS.
“Actually,” he told me two days later, “I like them very much. I think we should do them first.”
Asked for an adjective to describe my writing process, I’d have to pick slow, which may not at first sound attractive, yet has hidden depths and merits: consider slow, as opposed to fast food. Years sometimes pass between the idea for a story or a novel and its first draft, and although occasionally a story comes out almost whole, others demand numerous drafts and then insist on lying dormant before I can finish them.
Not surprisingly, given its themes, many of the stories in Paradise and Elsewhere originate in journeys I’ve made for personal or professional reasons. I don’t travel frequently, but when I do, it has a powerful and lasting effect on me. I look carefully and think about what I find abroad, and so you could say that I am a hybrid of the two sisters (one stay at home, one traveler) in my story “I Like to Look.”
One story, “Low Tide,” was written in 2013, but has its origins in a journey that took place five years earlier when we attended a family wedding in California, and took the opportunity return slowly home to British Columbia using the coast road. On one of our many stops we visited the lighthouse at Cape Blanco in Oregon. I have always liked lighthouses – the isolation, the potential for drama – and Cape Blanco is a particularly beautiful example, with its shell-like spiral staircase and, at the top, a multi-faceted Fresnel lens. It was a bright but windy day with good views of the wild coast there and I did not want to leave. The lens in particular fascinated me. That evening, I recorded the visit in my notebook, adding that at some point I must write about a lighthouse, and the idea promptly drifted out of consciousness until John Metcalf and I began to edit Paradise & Elsewhere. Two of the stories were, he felt, weaker than the rest and he suggested that I replace them. Although this was hard to hear, I knew that if I accepted his praise, then I should also listen to his more critical thoughts. I was nervous, though, about writing to order, but soon realized I had plenty of ideas slowly maturing in the back of my head.
Every story arises from a variety of elements and comes together through a kind of alchemy. In the case of “Low Tide,” I began with a feeling that the book, which features several stories set in deserts, needed water. This led me to an image of a beach at low tide, and to the selkie stories from Orkney. I’ve heard these tales since childhood and there are many variations, but the essence of the story is that a woman (or it can be a man) emerges from a seal’s skin and is taken my a human lover, who hides her pelt so she cannot return to the sea. The selkie cares for her human lover, but still yearns for her own kind. I was interested in the idea of a seal-woman who actively sought out her transformation, as opposed to being caught. From there I found my way back to the lighthouse and its keeper, who would be her lover.
Much of “Low Tide” takes place inside the lighthouse and it was a huge pleasure to write about one at last (not exactly Cape Blanco, but close) and to include the Fresnel lens: “A glass beehive, he called it, though also, I thought, it could be a gigantic insect eye. In daytime, the lens glittered and took on the colours of the sea and sky; at night its many planes glowed, so that it appeared to hover in the room: a hallucinatory vessel, a ship that might have travelled from beyond the moon.”
Each story has its story, and this slim book contains many years of work: the ingredients have matured, then been combined, refined and distilled. I have come to accept that the process is long, as with making wine, fine cabinetry, a garden or any number of worthwhile things. It’s pointless to yearn for speed. On the whole it works best for me when experience is slowly mulled over, absorbed and almost forgotten, then later retrieved and combined with other unexpected ingredients to make something new. I certainly do procrastinate, but in the end (which naturally takes a good long time to reach) that seems to be a good thing.
Page said this about her story: Well, who doesn’t like to kiss? I’ll admit it cheers me to see other people kissing, too. At high school we called mono the kissing disease, but when I wrote this story I was thinking more of HIV/AIDS. That pandemic surfaced during my twenties. Everyone lost someone. There was a before, and an ongoing after. It was terrible time, but there were eventually some positive consequences: increased honesty and more open public discourse about sex, for example. It was that aspect, the silver lining, that I had in mind.
The story begins with Gary arguing with the radio. My roots are in England, and for decades BBC Radio 4 was the background to my life. No ads, little music, just wonderful voices. Between the drama, poetry and news, panels of experts and pundits would discuss in intricate (sometimes exhaustive) detail the controversies of the day. My family and I frequently joined in and I still sometimes listen online. Gary’s position as the story opens is so vehement that it implies his eventual willingness to enjoy what he thought repugnant. That’s the seed from which the story grew.
Men and masculinity interest me a great deal, as does the way in which, generally speaking, we deal with otherness by separation, as if it was contagious — which brings me right back to disease. Bodies — our relationship with them, the ways in which they may betray or overtake us or be dramatically transformed — are a preoccupation of mine. One of the protagonists in my novel Alphabet is in transition between genders; The Find centres on a woman’s struggles with the onset of Huntington’s disease, and there lies yet another of my many preoccupations: identity. How much can we change and still remain who we are? At what point do we become someone else?
“When I started working on this cover, the word that kept coming up to describe Kathy Page’s collection was “lush.” The characters and narratives seem to exist in an almost mythic place, outside of an identifiable time . I knew I needed a strong image to reflect this book….”
June’s Cover to Cover in Quill and Quire is a fascinating article from Biblioasis designer Kate Hargreaves outlining her process for the jacket design of Paradise & Elsewhere.
Full of Lit reviews Paradise & Elsewhere:
“Amy Bloom called Paradise & Elsewhere a “moody, shape-shifting, provocative” collection, and that’s a good place to start. Imagine stories as moody and incendiary as Angela Carter’s, but as wondrous as One Hundred Years of Solitude. This collection is a departure for Page, whose previous works (includingAlphabet and The Story of My Face) were much more realistic: Paradise & Elsewhere is more like a book of myths for worlds that might have been. The people and places we visit are just to the left of reality. There are stories of journeys, travellers, pilgrims, and strangers; there are stories about how we relate to the world, how we acquire wisdom, and how we gain or lose power; and—as there are in many fairy tales, way deep down—there are stories about how we reconcile ourselves to death. There are themes of globalism, and feminism too. Her work shows the influence of Borges, Marquez, Calvino, Barthes, Cixous, Jung. You open the book and the thought emerges almost like a smell: here, you think, is someone who reads smart and reads deep.
“Of Paradise” demonstrates many of Kathy Page’s strengths. You’ll notice it’s extremely short—the printed version runs only ten pages—and written almost entirely in the second person plural, which is extremely rare. The speaker of the story is one member of a collectivity of women, who were once (we assume) the inhabitants of an ancient village. A desert village that prides itself on the beauty of its skin-painting, its bowl-work, the grains it harvests, that sort of thing. Over the course of the story we see the narrative shift back and forth between a time when all was peaceful, and the not-quite-so-peaceful present: a stranger’s arrival disrupts their (unreflexive? previously unchallenged?) sense of unity. They experience sexual conflict, their values shift, they grow uncomfortable with one another. In other words, within ten pages Kathy Page gives us the fall from grace in miniature, without falling back on names, allusions, or religious doctrines. Everything you need to know about this civilization can be seen in how the narrator uses words like we, I, she. It’s brilliant. And the conclusion—which we WON’T give away—is one heck of a surprise.”
The Globe & Mail included today’s featured short story collection, Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page (Biblioasis), as one of their “best in new small press books” earlier in the spring and we’d have to agree. “Of Paradise,” included in our Short Story Month anthology Full of Lit, will give the reader an excellent feel for the collection as a whole. Keep reading to find out more from Kathy Page and Biblioasis!
Visit the LPG/Full of Lit site to read Paradise & Elsewhere and purchase the taster anthlogy of the season’s short fiction in which it features. http://lpg.ca/SSM/PE
We asked the author… Kathy Page
Tell us what your collection is about in 140 characters or less.
Travel, trade, money and sex: what happens when a stranger arrives at the gate. Or on the shore.
Do you have a favourite story in your collection?
I think it has to be “Low Tide,” the newest story in the book. This story was inspired by the Scottish selkie myth, but takes the idea a stage or two further. I really enjoyed writing it because it was one of those times when the character, in this case the narrator too, was in the driving seat and pushed the story along. I just had to let it happen. It was also a great pleasure to write about lighthouses, which have always fascinated me, and to include the albatrosses and their wonderful courtship dance.
One that gave you more trouble than the others?
Most of my stories go through many drafts and I don’t really see this as trouble because I enjoy playing with them. But “Clients,” a slightly futuristic take on the way we trade parts of ourselves to each other, was an obstinate piece. I kept looking at it and feeling there was something not right. It was only when putting the manuscript together to send to Biblioasis that I realized that the problem was in the voice of the narrator. Once I understood, it was easy to fix.
Did you consciously decide to be a short story writer — or did the format choose you?
The story chooses. It chooses you and it tells you what it is. Some ideas feel like story ideas, and some feel like novel ideas (I’m a novelist, too). It’s normally pretty clear from the outset, and you can’t force one to become the other. But perhaps you can make yourself more open to one or the other.
Who is your favourite short story writer and why?
One? I have at least forty favourites! But how about the four Cs: Carver, Ray; Carter, Angela; Calvino, Italo and Chekhov, Anton.
Carter and Carver are polar opposites: he grittily realistic and pared down; she, playful and baroque. Calvino’s range is extraordinary and his most wonderful story, “The Spiral,” is told from the point of view of a mollusk, yet still makes me cry. All-seeing Chekhov sees us warts and all and never judges. I was going to say he stays with the human, but that’s not true: for example, there’s a wonderful story called “Gusev,” at the end of which the narrator seems to slip into the point of view of a shoal of fish, and then of the ocean itself.
What makes short stories so different (besides the obvious) than other writing formats?
From both the writer’s and the readers’ points of view, there’s an amazing opportunity to take risks and explore possibilities, without investing years (as writer) or days (as reader) in the process. Another wonderful thing is that because a short story is taken in whole, at one sitting, it may be understood structurally and remembered very clearly afterwards. It’s perhaps more like a poem than it is like a novel.
What would be the title of your memoir, if you were ever to write one?
I promise not to. But if forced, I quite like What If?
Kathy Page is the author of seven novels, including Alphabet (a Governor General’s Award finalist in 2005), The Story of My Face (longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002), and The Find (shorlisted for the ReLit Award in 2011), as well as many short stories, previously collected in As In Music. She recently co-edited In the Flesh (Brindle & Glass, 2012), a collection of personal essays about the human body, and has written for television and radio. Born in the UK, Kathy has lived on Salt Spring Island since 2001. Alphabet will be reissued by Biblioasis in Fall 2014.
We asked the publisher… Biblioasis
Biblioasis prides itself on publishing more short story collections than just about anyone out there, so when we say we think this is one of the best collections we’ve seen in a long time, that’s saying a lot. We love short stories because there’s so much room for playfulness—in voice, structure, point of view, the compression and expansion of time, in dialogue. You can pack them full of emotion or load them up with philosophy and not worry about reader burnout. You can read one on the subway to work or read another on lunch break, which is how they were read originally, when the form really started to flourish in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines. When a good short story is in my hands it can be as therapeutic as a weekend at the cottage or a trip to the park.
Otherwise? We believe that the short story is the genre in which Canadian literature has made its most indelible contribution to world literary culture, and we’re proud to foster the authors who are trying to take that contribution to the next level. We love the way Kathy Page incorporates the beauty of European and Latin American magic realism with a grounded (if-not-gritty) North American approach to the big questions: death, love, sex, power. She’s got a poet’s ability to compress significant details into small phrases, and her intellect is phenomenal. Most of the time it feels like you’ll never be quick enough to catch her mind at work.
–Tara Murphy, Publicity
Biblioasis is a literary press based in Windsor, Ontario, committed to publishing the best poetry, fiction and non-fiction in beautifully crafted editions.
Thank you to Kathy & Tara for answering our questions! Get your copy of Full of Lit, including Kathy’s story “Of Paradise” by clicking the buy button below. Get caught up on all of our Short Story Month coverage here.
Upcoming Toronto: two Eh-list library readings. I will be reading at the Barbara Frum library on the 27th May and North York on the 28th May. Both events are free and run 7:00 p.m. – 8:15 p.m.
“In these mythical, magical stories Kathy Page parts company with traditional wisdom to blaze a new trail through the wild, lush, half-fantastic and half-real terrain of origin stories. Page is the author of seven previous novels, many stories and has written for Television and radio. Join us for an evening with this complex and intriguing writer.”
“This vibrant, startlingly imaginative collection reminded me—as few collections have done in recent years—of both where stories come from, and why we need to tell them. Kathy Page is a massive talent: wise, smart, very funny and very humane.” Barbara Gowdy
Here’s the latest review in the National Post
I’ll talk a little about the ideas behind the book, read from Low Tide, which features a seal-woman, a lighthouse keeper and an albatross, and also from the title story, Of Paradise. The last time I was in the city I snapped this mural, which makes me feel that TO is the perfect city for this book…
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.
Shortcuts appears monthly.