canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Mike Barnes
Porcupines Quill, 1999

Review by Patra Reiser

Mike Barnes's poetry was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award in 1996, and if, as it is said, history repeats itself, then Aquarium, his first collection of short stories will be as equally recognised. In 14 stories, he has created tiny worlds of pain, longing, regret and redemption. Barnes gives us characters who are damaged, whether psychologically, emotionally, spiritually or morally. And each story complements the next.

In the first, "The Aquarium," two people stricken with lupus are brought together through their interest in aquariums. Their injuries are not only physical, but emotional too, and the reader finds themself rooting for Ken and Marie to heal each other. He starkly describes their lovemaking: "They undressed in the dark and got under the covers. Though they took it slow, the creaking and popping of their joints made a sound of radical intimacy, bones grinding upon bones." After: "She felt his forehead and cheeks. 'I guess this is a remission.'"

A temporary bout of wellness indeed, as inevitably their romance fails. Through his careful observations, he ushers us to the end, leaving a metallic sadness in the mouth.

One of the strongest of a series of strong stories, "In Florida," a pair of snowbirds, the Atwaters, fly down south. They begin to come to terms with their life, both old and new. Barnes creates a world of outsiders trying to build a community, as if showing us that cliqueness never goes away, and facades must always stay up. Here the Atwaters hide the wound of their pedophile son like surgery scar:

"He switched on bedside lamp and opened his LeCarré novel. The words swam and blurred; he was too tired to read. He stared at the lighted rectangle; when he heard the water run he narrowed his gaze. It was what she wanted from him. Not a hug, not comforting words, but the knowledge that he was similarly afflicted. That whatever was keeping her up had attacked him too. He listened. Her sniffling was faint and steady. Dennis."

His prose is beautifully crafted, never overwrought, never too ambiguous. As Goldilocks would say, just right. Perhaps it is his poet's sensibility, but every word feels carefully considered and placed for ultimate meaning and impact. Aquarium echoes with what might have beens ... if things had been different, if life had been kinder.


Patra Reiser lives in Montreal.







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