Paradise & Elsewhere in the Winnipeg Review

at the precipice of the end is We, The Trees which is a really good mystery story.  It is also really disturbing and stresses the immediacy of our environmental circumstances and again the role of the media. Yet, there is a strange hope at the end which allows a wee sigh of relief after the fact.

The Ancient Siddanese looks at how each generation records history and each generation debunks that history when more knowledge is exposed.This layering calls back to the writing of Italo Calvino, and Page deftly navigates the timelines. She draws a great parallel between truth being exposed, and our reliance on cleverness to save ourselves, even in the face of our doom. This story is not the first one in this collection to allude to humanity’s end, and in its resigned quality, it still manages to express a kind of hope, and maybe even a little love for the human race.

The world’s environment plays either a central issue or figures as a setting, but you can feel that each piece here is affected by it. Not to put too fine a point on it, humanity is screwed, and not just environmentally.  We have a hate-on for one another and throughout the book we see people tearing each other and their reasons apart, because Page holds the story in her hand and is able to turn it, like a diamond, so we can see all of the sides.

The book is populated with realistic, impulsive people. The female characters show a vast range of strengths and weaknesses. They make bad and good choices, are mean, and soft, sensible, and fully realized.  Page also writes men realistically: I found that I could tell when the voice was male, though it was subtle, and she does not force stereotypes. She swayed towards archetypes to illustrate the fable inspired pieces, but no character was ever generalized.  Page’s narrators are easy to slip into and her storytelling fluid, even when it is so sharply accurate.

Her writing is fully aware of gender stereotypes, and uses some of the stories to shine a spotlight on them.  We see this in the story Of Paradise. A mind-bending origin story, everyone is personified as “She”. We understand this world as an ancient but a new one, and although familiar, strange enough that we cannot sit back:

It was never, as some say now, dull. Nor was it quite perfect. Rivalries developed, occasionally fights. There was once a murder for which the punishment was a magnificent feast, then execution.

When “the traveller” arrives, we see their existence change. Their interpretation and experience of this traveler eventually clicks for us, as readers, and recognition filters through our bodies though the revelation is an obvious one. An origin story and a parable, the lesson is not so clear or even present.  What the story does for us as readers is challenge our expectations, turning something we take for granted upside down and shaking it apart to expose the roots of our knowledge. Page then puts it all back together in front of our eyes unapologetically, as though this reality could have been the case.

Page’s writing, even when mired in doom, is full of love and care and sometimes very sexy. Next to the gender subversion and environmental disasters, it is sometimes disturbing (Low Tide) and sometimes surprising and welcome (The Kissing Disease, The Clients).  She has the ability, in the way she has framed the pieces, to capture the excitement of ordinary things made entirely new by her imagined realities:  First kisses, the art of conversation, language, and tired overloaded senses.

I’ll give you an example of disturbing sexiness. Low Tide is the story of a woman who comes out of the sea and is unused to having legs.  Is she a mermaid? No, she’s more realistic than that, it’s not explicit, but there is allusion to a sea creature with fur (most likely an otter which is explicitly alluded to on the back cover). You may have a problem with the antiquated Woman representing nature and things natural, and Man representing civilization etc. But I think in this story it is used purposefully and knowingly. We begin the story vicariously enjoying innocence, discovering life as we know it without shame. Our animal woman discovers her mate and as he notices she is naked, she says the most accurate and inaccurate thing: “I’ve come from the sea. I’ve left my coat on the rock”.

Page allows us to have some fun with this fish out of water scenario, but we move through the story quickly.  She immediately discovers sex with a human man, and that sensual discovery eventually sets the stage for a dark story about spousal abuse and sexual exploitation. This story has the most magic realist elements in the collection.  The animal/human shape-shifting that occurs, and must occur to allow the stark flashes of realism we are confronted with on our otter woman’s behalf, really help the story land with us. She, being innocent of humanity, we as readers being ripe with knowledge, makes the contrast full of helplessness. In the end, we are left with a feeling of disgust and a strange, unrealistic relief. This story is very hard to shake.

Lambing begins like a fairytale, and continues in such a vein that I hoped at one point some elves would come out at night and clear up the trouble for poor Ax Blaney. Keeping with this mystical quality, all the women in this tale are cleverly named after weapons or tools: Ax, Sling.The men are all named after birds: Crow, Gull, Lark.  Page weaves a tale worthy of the Grimm Brothers and, in keeping with the style, there is blood. We cheer for Ax in this revenge story, as her beliefs should show her victory. A cautionary tale, this one is also a difficult read and not only because of the description of lamb slaughtering, “They never struggled, but sank demurely to their knees in spreading lakes of blood, bright on the scrubbed stone,” but also for the way Page confronts us with the tragedy and revelation of choice.

Clients Is a great relief, which offers us some hope for human kind. It starts off “It’s a ritual: We shower, dress, turn off all devices…we enjoy the preparations and know Martin will arrive punctually at seven.”  Our narrator and his wife are clients of Martin’s. They pay him to (I almost spoiled this one, but I won’t) do something that in this imagined world is lost and forgotten. Yet people crave it enough to pay someone to do it (best read the book to find out what it is). The really interesting thing about this story is that the imagined world or future does not seem that imagined, or in the future.  It is too familiar, and I took it as a cautionary tale, vowing to uphold its teachings (not that I don’t know how to do this “thing”, but I can see the world getting to this place…again, read the story to find out what it is).

The collection ends with My Fees which seems to be a meditation on interpretation using psychiatrists, who take the poetry of your being, thoughts, dreams, fears etc. and interprets them for money as the vehicle.  It felt like an epilogue to the book, and I liked it as that. I’m not sure how it stands on its own.  But seeing as the collection challenges and presents interpretations, I thought it just right.

The book is a curiosity, inspiring dread, hope, and “what ifs” in the reader. However terrifying the images (like in Lambing), the more you need to continue reading, either to wash away those final images, or to collect more inside your mind. I found that though I was affected by most of the content, there were a few stories that left me more baffled than the others.

While I usually came away from the story marveling at the imaginative and deeply engaged writing, there were a few pieces that seemed out of sync with my perceived through-line within the collection. Perhaps they exist to elicit a sense of doubt, an unknowing sensation that happens when the seasons change and things could go either way. Woodsmoke was like this for me. I did not find it that compelling. Although it made a coherent base for ideas of age, past and present, who we are in time to ourselves and others, how long life is and how many different people we are in it, I didn’t feel the story as effective as the others. My Beautiful Wife was not as vivid a story as I was used to with the others, it felt clouded- although I did connect with the wife’s impending inner revolution, and perhaps the uneasy unknowingness was the point of it.

Every single story in this book is unsettling, as though Page set out to dismantle our comfortable ideas regarding the world around us. I highly recommend this book: it is full of beautiful intelligent writing that is sharp, raw and to the point. And it just might make us all better human beings.

Biblioasis | 128 pages |  $18.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927428597