Category Archives: Short Fiction

The Two of Us: “the works of a master who seems to have tapped into ancient troubles bubbling up in our struggling world.”

The Two of Us

by Kathy Page

Reviewed by Paul Headrick in The Ormsbury Review

From Gallant to Kafka

In “The House on Manor Close,” the opening story of this collection, a woman recalls her childhood with an older sister who was obsessed with birds: “I began to think that when she grew up she would become not an ornithologist but an actual bird.” Her fanciful speculation isn’t actually implausible, for in Page’s work we can be in the territory of Mavis Gallant at one moment and Franz Kafka or even Ovid the next. Her characters manage to inhabit the subtly psychological world of literary modernism while also belonging to the unpredictable, shifting landscapes of much older literary genres.

Page’s previous book, Paradise & Elsewhere (Biblioasis, 2014), an astonishing collection of contemporary folk-fairy tales, brought this ancient/modern element into relief, but it’s present as well in these stories, which are more realistic, at least on the surface.

Several that begin the collection are about elderly parents and their adult children. The parents need help that their offspring mostly fail to provide, burdened as they are by old, generosity-killing resentments. “Why are we like this,” asks the narrator of “Snowshill,” after a failed outing intended to cheer her enfeebled father and passive-aggressive mother. “Why can’t we all see how little time there is left?” The grudging reconciliation that follows seems dependent on shared self-deception.

In “The House on Manor Close” the mother exercises a weird tyranny, in part by feeding each of her three daughters differently, rewarding and punishing with dishes they like or despise. When her girls grow up and leave, alienated and angry, she and her husband indulge their passion for gardening, succeeding with plants as they never could with their girls: plants have potentials but not wills. The individual troubles here are entirely convincing while at the same time evoking the force of archetypal generational conflicts.

“Different Lips,” one of the strongest of these enthralling stories, is a variation on The Beauty and the Beast tale, which Page has explored before with startling effect in her novels. The character needing redemption in “Different Lips” is Beauty, not Beast. Jessica is a self-centred, damaged young woman who long has traded on her looks but who finally discovers herself desperate, out of money and friends. She travels across town to see an old lover whom she knows still yearns for her, and she hopes for sex, her only way of making connections.

A funny and cruel reversal greets her, no redemption at all, as her former lover’s lips are grotesquely swollen from an allergic reaction. After their wretched encounter, she struggles to make a last attempt to reach out to him and to save herself. The narrator pauses to describe the scene that Jessica passes:

The cheap restaurants and pubs nearby were filling up. People spilled out on to improvised terraces or else just leaned on walls, glass in hand. A few parents pushed slack-faced, sleeping children homewards, the older siblings, occupied with bright coloured drinks and ice creams, trailing behind.

The carefully chosen words — “cheap,” “improvised,” “slack-faced,” “trailing” — establish a continuity between the alienated main character and the failed world she inhabits, winning the reader’s recognition and deep assent in a way that contributes to the power of Page’s work.

The exceptions in these stories, the characters who are able to love, still feel a pull toward self-interest, but they choose to resist. In “The Right Thing to Say,” Don and Marla wait to discover whether she has inherited an incurable disease and to decide, if the news is bad, whether she will have an abortion. Don knows that he will also need to decide whether he is even capable of staying with Marla. The story echoes a fine Page novel, The Find (McArthur & Co., 2011), in which a couple faces a similar revelation.

In both cases, in the manner of the most gripping of folk tales, the tension-filled situations dramatize a choice that on some level we all must make, with the same ultimate consequences. (The story also gracefully alludes to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” and it’s a mark of Page’s accomplishment that this move doesn’t seem at all audacious.) Don’s eventual response, which forms the resolution of “The Right Thing to Say,” is a brilliantly fitting surprise.

Kathy Page

“Open Water,” the final story of The Two of Us and the longest, creates both the most realistically detailed world and the most impressive dramatization of the way that for Page realism and myth are one. Mitch, a swimming coach, gets a big break — out of nowhere, Tara, a prodigy. Mitch must proceed cautiously in order not to put off the girl’s parents, who are unenthusiastic about the extreme time commitment required by competitive swimming. He also needs to be cautious when Tara, on the verge of elite success, considers quitting swimming altogether.

Once again the story is about parents and children. In some ways Tara becomes closer to Mitch than to her mother and father, who are preoccupied with their other children, and with their own conflict — they separate when Tara is in her teens. We learn through flashback of Mitch’s childhood and his own mother and father, familiarly self-absorbed. “‘It’s tough having parents who ignore what you are,’” Mitch tells his wife when recounting his past.

The decision that Mitch helplessly awaits — Tara’s decision — isn’t as life-and-death as the impending news in “The Right Thing to Say,” but still it’s elemental, as the story consistently draws the reader’s attention back to the importance of water and the image of a person moving through it. “‘What the hell is it about?’” Tara’s mother asks Mitch of her daughter’s swimming life. “‘Being in the water,’” Mitch replies.

Earlier, Mitch recalls his lonely childhood at a boarding school that was precisely wrong for him, and the moment when he discovered the school’s unused swimming pool: “He remembers how his heart lifted, how he almost cried when he saw it. Just the sight of the water, the thought of being immersed.”

So Tara’s choice takes on that special Page quality: will she live on land or in water, choose realism or myth? How will Mitch, her proxy father, straddling both of these worlds, respond? With exquisite timing the answer confronts us with the immense stakes for Mitch and for all of Page’s characters in these stories, the works of a master who seems to have tapped into ancient troubles bubbling up in our struggling world.

 

Link to original review:

#297 From Gallant to Kafka

 

The Two of Us a Best Book of 2016

 GLOBE and MAIL FICTION

THE TWO OF US

BY KATHY PAGE

“One of the most talented short-story writers working today delivered yet another knockout collection that is both darkly funny and terribly sad.”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/the-globe-100-the-best-books-of-2016/article33132356/

The Writers’ Trust  Best Books of 2016 recommended by Canadian writers

Deborah Campbell
 
“Strife. Division. Tears in the social fabric. As journalism collapses, leaving fake news and social media to compete for our attention, books are one of the last places where complex conversations still take place. Kathy Page’s 2016 Giller long-listed The Two of Us is a collection of stories that explores relationships between pairs of people (not necessarily a couple). She has a dark side and knows how to throw a grenade into expectations…”
 
 

QUILL & QUIRE

The Two of Us

Kathy Page
Biblioasis
Following her 2014 collection of fantastical tales, Paradise and Elsewhere, Kathy Page’s newest story collection is notable first as a demonstration of the author’s remarkable versatility. But The Two of Us stands on its own merits: a group of emotionally resonant, poignant examinations of life and love and – most piercingly – death. Page is a highly skilled miniaturist, capable of pulling off powerful effects by way of simple (though never simplistic) prose and a keen eye for human fallibility and ambiguity. –S.B.

Quill & Quire Books of the Year

The Walrus Best Books of 2016

Canadian authors pick their favourite reads

Sonnet L’Abbé

On my bedside table are the books I’m dying to finish when I’m done marking: Kathy Page’s Giller-longlisted The Two of Us, Susan Juby’s Leacock-prize-winner Republic of Dirt, and Kamal Al-Solaylee’s truth-to-power memoir, Brown.

The Best Books of 2016

 

Psychologically rich & cinematic in the best way, the sweet agony of connection

This review  of  The Two of Us ran in the Ottawa Citizen and the Vancouver  Sun, probably elsewhere,  too.

“Word is, the publishing industry (a business sector conscious of market demand) doesn’t invest much in, or encourage, short story collections. Alice Munro-like exceptions exist, of course, but — word is — that literary genre is regarded as a money pit. In a Walmart world, apparently, any volume of short stories is artisanal, a hand-crafted labour of love: those who seek it out will cherish it, but the majority of fiction readers desire the engagement or satisfaction or dollar value that only novel-length storytelling is thought to bring.

Based on the evidence of Kathy Page’s The Two of Us and Clea Young’s Teardown, though, someone’s mistaken. These collections, 28 stories representing untold hours of art-making effort on their authors’ parts, invite us into captivating worlds. In ten-page allotments, admittedly, but still. Technically accomplished, they’re immersive, emotionally involving (the proverbial laughter through tears), and insightful.

If you’re a short story reader already, here’s another pair to seriously consider. If you’re not, maybe considering giving them a taste. They’re way more satisfying than kale.

For The Two of Us Salt Spring Island resident Kathy Page selected pieces that focus on pairs. Psychologically rich and cinematic in the best way, they showcase Page’s range of interests, clever setting choice, and singular eye.

Usually taking place in the U.K. (where Page once resided), the stories capture assorted moments in time. For instance, just four pages, “Johanna” features the reminiscences of a man whose philosophy decades earlier had been “love often” and “don’t count on me.” Settled now, he wonders if he’d want to meet one of the children he sired. Not quite two pages, “Daddy” relates just an instant in the day of a girl who is about to begin a caving adventure with her father.

Some stories envision intersecting strangers. A lovely scenario, “The Last Cut” portrays a hairdresser shaving the head of a last-minute client, a woman with cancer who then asks for his help in choosing the perfect hat.

Page often examines familial and romantic relationships. “The Perfect Day” follows shifting allegiances between interchanging pairs: a daughter taking her ailing elderly father to a historical landmark with her waspish mother in tow. Her vow — “I intend to keep smiling and move on through the kind of day I want us all to have” — proves difficult to uphold. That story twins with “The House on Manor Close” and “Dear Son,” where the subtle tensions and evolved dynamics of adult children with elderly parents are portrayed with both humour and finesse.

Showcasing lovers — squatters; worried expectant parents with problem DNA; former friends with benefits; an obese couple struggling with prejudice; and a marriage on the verge — Page hints at the myriad possible trajectories any romance might take. Altogether Page offers a master class in fun with numbers, in this case two. She has been longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for this collection… “

Brett Josef Grubisic, read in the Vancouver Sun.

It’s also a great pleasure to see this  student review in the McGill daily

 http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2016/10/the-sweet-agony-of-connection/

To quote from it: “Sweet Agony is one of the shortest stories from the collection. Page proves that you sometimes don’t need to write a very detailed and long story to describe a loving relationship and evoke an emotional response. It describes two lovebirds making love on a hot day of summer while no one’s home. The story evokes the feeling of nervousness, confusion and awkwardness surrounding being intimate with one’s childhood crush.”

The Two of Us Globe Review

Short  fiction does sometimes garner short shrift in terms of review coverage. It’s a huge pleasure then, to read Steven W. Beattie’s review of The Two of Us  for the Globe, which takes the time to explore one of the stories in depth,  mentions their  “potent” emotional impact, and at the same time defends the genre.

“…Page’s ability to convey large swaths of emotion in just a few simple gestures; she runs circles around authors who work twice as hard for half the reward.”

Here it is, online: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/review-kathy-pages-the-two-of-us-and-sex-and-death-a-new-anthology-of-short-fiction/article32283064/

A Good Start: The Two of Us nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

It’s over a week since I heard from  Dan Wells at Biblioasis that my short story collection, The Two of Us, had been short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was a delicious surprise and is  a great  honour and, but since it happened, I’ve been too busy to post here, and have only been only shocked into action by the Giller Prize tweeting an invite to my website yesterday.  giller-screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-10-14-17-amThis is rather like having your parents visiting unannounced, and a bit of belated house-keeping seems in order, so here I am,  – delighted, too, with the first review from Quill and Quire:    http://www.quillandquire.com/review/the-two-of-us/

My previous collection of stories, Paradise & Elsewhere was  long-listed for the same prize in 2014. The two books are very different,  so this adds to the pleasure of the current nomination in that I feel both sides of my writing personality and interests  have been in some way endorsed. It’s also great  to be  part of what looks to be a very strong and diverse list.  

Many thanks to this year’s jury, Lawrence Hill, Jeet Heer, Kathleen Winter, Samantha Harvey, and Alan Warner – and also to my editor, John Metcalf, and publisher, Dan Wells for all their skilled work and dogged faith in my writing.

kp-twoofus-sq

 

Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page

Storytellers

A Tale of Four Storytellers

In this thoughtful and illuminating essay posted on AllLit Up,  https://alllitup.ca/Blog/2015/A-Tale-of-Four-Storytellers,  Poet Zachary Wells asks whether Canadian culture is old enough to  make a literature of fantasy, and  concludes with an affirmation that yes, it is, provide we  have an elastic definition of what Canadian is, and can overcome the traditional prejudice against work that breaks out of realist bounds.  Wells includes Paradise & Elsewhere in his survey of  recent fabulist short story collections, which also includes work by  Sean Virgo, Mike Barnes, Molly Peacock and Stuart Ross. Here’s what he says about Paradise  & Elsewhere:

Kathy Page, originally from England, is best known for her realist fiction. Her recently republished prison novel, Alphabet, has been praised for its gritty fidelity to the prisoner’s experience in the English penal system. Page’s editor, John Metcalf, admitted to her that he has a McEwanesque “prejudice against non-realistic writing,” and was therefore reluctant even to read the manuscript of Paradise & Elsewhere (Biblioasis), which Page had submitted at the same time as a collection of more conventional stories. When she prevailed upon him to give the fabulist book a chance, it turned out that he liked it a great deal.

Wells_3

As have many readers and awards jurors, perhaps because of the very archetypal nature of the collection’s tales. Tolstoy, who looked to the art of the peasantry for models, famously said that “all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” The latter plot is crucial to Page’s dark fables. The place where the stranger arrives is not usually a town, per se, but the settings of Page’s stories tend to be hostile, isolated, inhospitable zones. If these are not always “the places where things begin,” as the book’s cover copy proclaims, they are certainly the sort of place, like the Galapagos, where things, be they species or languages or stories, mutate into unique, heterogeneous forms—the sort of place where a stranger’s arrival means trouble.

Indeed, one of the book’s most trenchant themes is the troubled interpenetration of the modern and the pre-historical. In “G’Ming,” the book’s first story, the narrator is Aeui, a teenager on an impoverished island who bilks tourists of money in exchange for “authentic” exposure to village life. While Aeui disdains the gullibility of his marks, he is also contemptuous of his shaman uncle who “sits by the river all day. It seems to me he has no obligations.” The next story, “Lak-ha” is the very brief origin myth for a community that clings to life on an exposed, stony peninsula, supported by the Hetlas tree, the fibrous wood of which, it turns out, is very good for making rope. A chance visit from a foreign ship brings commercial exchange to Lak-ha. The rope trade affords a measure of prosperity to the people, who now “have television, internet, iPod, cellphone, denim jeans, Barbie doll, same as you.”

As in Barnes’ and Virgo’s books, the nature of storytelling, its origins and its future, the imperatives of “objective” journalism or science in conflict with myth, feature prominently. In “Clients,” a fable set in an unspecified future time in which the rage for expertise has infiltrated all aspects of society, a couple hires a professional conversationalist who “doubt[s] that [they] would enjoy a home-grown conversation.” They decide to give it a go regardless and the story ends with them as an Edenic couple, speaking to each other haltingly, making the first hesitant, unmediated forays into language, “a new country, vast, intricate, ours.”

The article is very much worth reading in it entirety. https://alllitup.ca/Blog/2015/A-Tale-of-Four-Storytellers

Good Company

 A real  thrill to receive a copy of Best Canadian Stories 15, and find my story, “Low Tide,”  in such good company!  Like many writers, I rarely read my own work once it’s in print, but there is plenty for me in this anthology.  Thanks to editor John Metcalf and Oberon Press.  ISBN 978 0 770 1432 4SC

 

Best Canadain Short Stories 15

Kathy Page on the short story, an interview with Trevor Corkum

http://www.malahatreview.ca/interviews/page_interview.html

TC The short story form is chameleon and shape shifting, filled with infinite possibility. The best short fiction, I think, comes into being seemingly fully formed, completely original, sui generis. Who are the short story writers you admire most? What short fiction writers have had the biggest impact on your own work in this form?

KP  Yes—one of the wonderful things about the short story is the scope it offers for formal invention, how infinitely various and startlingly new (and at the same time ancient) it can be. Of course, the novel is a shape-shifter too, but brevity makes innovation and radical experiment more feasible, and it certainly makes it possible (though not required) to play around with the way plot is put to work. The short story, in its intensity and in the ways it is structured and read, is as much related to poetry as it is to the novel.

Oddly enough, many of the short fiction writers who have meant most to me have names beginning with C: Carter (Angela), Carver, Calvino, and Chekhov… These are writers who do very different—indeed, almost opposite—things with both the story and the sentence. Carter, for example, plays with folk and fairy-tale motifs but writes in an intricate, baroque fashion, whereas Carver is distinguished by the pared-down style he and his editor arrived at, and by the sheer ordinariness of his characters. Calvino is playful enough to tell a story from the point of view of a mollusc. Chekhov’s characters are so convincing that he can get away with anything: think of the ending of “Gusev,” where the protagonist dies and the perspective shifts to a shoal of fish, a shark, and finally the ocean itself. British writer David Constantine, just beginning to be read this side of the pond, is another C, and then of course there is Joyce Carol Oates, and (moving on to other letters), Kafka, J.G. Ballard and Olivia Butler. Since moving here I’ve encountered wonderful Canadian short fiction writers—to name just a few, Caroline Adderson, Alice Munro, both of the MacLeods…

 As for your “fully formed” hypothesis, this is probably a very personal thing. For me, some stories arrive almost complete and others are a struggle to excavate (it’s often a matter of stripping out extraneous parts), but I don’t think you’d be able to judge which is which from reading them. 

TC  You’ve had a varied career—teacher, carpenter, therapist, lecturer, just to name a few. You’ve also lived and worked in several countries—the U.K., Finland, Estonia, and now Canada. How do the various threads and themes of our lives make their way into fiction? How should we, as writers, treat this real-life source material? Why fiction and not memoir, for example?

KP  I don’t think there is a “should” here.  What you do with your material and how much you use your own life experience or observations of others depends on whether your interest is in the story and where it can go, or in coming as close as you can to the experience, or the facts, and the meaning they have for you. Intention is important, but I’d argue that even when we try very hard not to, most of us write some degree of fiction. Amy Hempel’s story “The Harvest” pretty much sums the situation up, I feel. I’m by nature a fabricator. I sometimes write memoir, or stay close to my own experience in fiction, but I tend to feel uncomfortable doing it. I want to shape things, edit and exaggerate, and I feel restricted if I don’t, and sometimes guilty when I do. It’s better to feel free.

TC  If you could spend a full day with one of your literary heroes, who would you invite, and what would you do?

KP  Perhaps I’d go for a hike with Edward Thomas, an English First World War poet with “Eco” leanings. He figures in my forthcoming set of linked stories. My caveat is that we’d go in the landscape of his time and place, not mine. Thomas wrote a few short stories, though his poetry is on the whole more interesting than they are. He’s a fascinating character. Often depressed and conflicted at home, he was at his best outdoors, walking or cycling, and was supposedly a great wayfaring companion. Like most heroes, he might be a disappointment, but the landscape would not.

TC In your own career, you had early success, and then stepped away from writing for a time, disillusioned by the publishing world in the 1990s. Eventually, you found your way back, and have enjoyed great success and recognition, winning or being shortlisted for major literary awards. Dire prognostications of the future of books have been sounding in the literary world for some time—publishers going under, bookstores closing, reading numbers seeming to decline in the age of the virtual world. Given this backdrop, why continue to write?

KP  I did step away from writing novels, or I tried to. I flirted briefly with writing for film and TV, and looked into a career in social housing management… However, I continued to write short fiction, and in many ways those years were very productive since the screenwriting side of things taught me a great deal about structure, and I made real progress with my stories. A big part of my problem then was that I was with a big publisher who was then bought by a bigger one. I didn’t really satisfy them in terms of sales. The industry was becoming much more focused on the idea of each title being very profitable, rather than the business simply making a profit over all, as in the old days. So I had a feeling of being a disappointment to them: Could I not just do something differently, though they did not know exactly what, and would I please never write a short story again?  I felt bad about it. Now, none of this seems so problematic. Short fiction may not be viable in the new hyper-commercial atmosphere, but nonetheless,  I and others (including a few very wonderful publishers) love it, think it’s of huge value and know that it connects powerfully with readers: so yes, this is very much worth doing. The readership may be smaller than it is for best-selling novels or blockbuster movies, but that does not mean its cultural value is lesser. We’re so used to the Hollywood model that we irrationally assume everything should be measured and valued that way.

With a novel, the reader steps into a vast and fully imagined world and may stay there for hours or days on end, pulled along by the emerging storyline, character development and so on. I think this is what many of us want a lot of the time, and it can be a wonderful thing. Short stories ask something different of the reader—a particular, concentrated kind of attention and the ability to sense and absorb the story as a whole. Reading a good story is both intense and very satisfying, but it is not the same as being “carried along.” It’s more like a dive into the lake.

Of course, in the current market, short fiction is unlikely to pay the writer a living wage for the time put into crafting it, and yes, there are many competing forms of entertainment. Even so, I think that the important thing is to make good work and get it out, to build and sustain a short fiction culture, which is exactly what we’re doing here, with this contest.

TC  In a follow-up question, what do you think is the state of short fiction in Canada today? Are you optimistic about the short story’s future?

KP  Yes. I see many wonderful short story writers and a great deal of respect for the short story in Canada. There’s a tradition of story writing, and some pride about that tradition. Canada’s wealth of independent presses, and journals like this one, are a huge force for the good, ensuring that a huge variety of short fiction can appear. There’s a sense of the Canadian short story moving beyond its traditional confines, especially in terms of subject matter. So all in all, I think the ecosystem is very healthy.

TC  You’ve written successfully in both short fiction and in the novel. How and why does a project find a particular form for you?

KP  My novels often arise out of a combination of a character or characters who won’t go away, a predicament of some kind, and a big question that needs to be explored and elaborated (rather than answered). The beginning of a novel is rather like making a snowball: more and more seems to stick to what I already have; the thing accumulates, grows, and eventually begins to move, still growing as it rolls along. In a novel, I’ll often be interested in the fruits of a particular action over time. My short stories tend to foreground shorter periods of time, and even when they are full of event they are more likely to focus on the architecture, quality and meaning of a particular experience. I always know when I am beginning something whether it is a story or a novel. Once, I did return to a published short story and use the main characters and events again in a novel. In that novel (Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, which comes out in Canada this fall), the material from the story is not much changed, but there are many other characters and a much longer timeline which stretches either side of the original idea.

TC  Finally, what are you looking for in this year’s contest? Any tips for the short story writers who will be entering their work?

KP  I want to be surprised, moved, or made to think, and perhaps all three—to read vivid, original stories that have a powerful effect of some kind, whether that is achieved by subtle or spectacular means.  One tip: Leave as long as possible between revisions.