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book review:

Best Canadian Stories 08

For the best Canadian stories of a given year, a reader need usually look no further than the latest collection by Alice Munro, who at her best seems bioluminescent. It is unlikely that Best Canadian Stories 08, which is more like a set of energetically stoked embers, will crowd Munro off of anyone’s shelf. These stories are good, and all are quite accomplished in terms of craft, but they rarely meet the expectations raised by the series’ title.

In many stories, the reader is forced to spend time with characters that are lifelike but tiresome; the desire to eavesdrop quickly evaporates. It is not always (perhaps never) necessary to like the people one is reading about, and BCS 08 does reward readerly patience, but often these resolutely ordinary characters fail to snag genuine interest.

This is not the case in the collection’s first story, “You Can Keep One Thing,” by award-winning writer Kathleen Winter. Detailed and compelling, it is told in a distinctive, thoroughly conceived voice. And yet this voice, even at its most convincing, is a wall between the narrative and the reader, who cannot help imagining the author in the act of creation, instead of the narrator she has created. Character-driven fiction (that is, the majority of literary fiction) is a kind of ventriloquism, and in much of the work featured in Best Canadian Stories 08, the reader can see the authors’ lips moving.

The most seamless stories in the collection are Clark Blaise’s “Isfahan” and “The Pool Man” by Patricia Young, though both are marred by predictable situations that are presented as inevitabilities (in the former, an instance of racial profiling at the airport; in the latter, an illicit encounter with the eponymous character).

The adolescent gossip of Cynthia Flood’s “Learning to Dance” is somewhat less effortless but, if anything, more memorable. However, its lustre is slightly diminished by its similarities to Winter’s opening story. Both follow young female protagonists whose parents are insensitive to particularities of language and fashion that prevent their daughters from fitting in. These stories, and in some respects the collection as a whole, are encapsulated by this short paragraph from “Learning to Dance”: “‘This isn’t a frock,’ she whispered, when she could get her mother’s attention. ‘I can’t wear this at School. Everyone will say it’s Canadian.'” (Daniel Marrone)

edited by John Metcalf, $19.95, 168 pgs, Oberon Press, 205-145 Spruce St, Ottawa, ON, K1R 6P1

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