canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Verandah People
by Jonathan Bennett
Raincoast Books, 2003

See also Jonathan Bennett in conversation with George Murray

Reviewed by Alex Boyd

There is an element of regret to be found in Jonathan Bennett’s collection of stories Verandah People – a number of characters lament what could have been and the verandah comes to represent the border between worlds, or potentially different lives. In "Despite Last Night’s Rain," we work backwards in time through the memories of George, who despairs for the life with children he could have had. When he collapses, the line between lives blurs and becomes confused: "He was alive, yes, he was sure of it. But whose life was he inside of?" The reader eventually learns that his case of regret and dismay stems for a decision to step outside and stand by his wife, both literally and figuratively ("The door banged behind George as he considered stepping out across the lawn") despite how they might never have children.

I was mildly frustrated with the lack of events in "Alaska," until I saw that it was a character study in regret and affection, with a woman remembering her sister’s life – a life that burned brightly but for half the length, so to speak. And when Amanda remembers her sister coming to her aid, the story (and the collection) ends on an astonishingly beautiful moment.

Some of the stories that don’t deal with regret, exactly, are about characters making life-changing decisions, introducing the possibility of regret, and again suggesting the verandah border to a different life. In "The Price of Fish," the protagonist moves to a different country to escape a conscious sense of numbing routine. And change comes not from within, but is imposed from outside in "About Walking," when a man sitting quietly in a mall has his life thrown into a state of shock, revulsion and guilt by what literally drops from above. These stories go beyond the assertion that we have a finite amount of time, to include the idea that even within that time, the framework of our lives is fragile, and wavers with different decisions and events. In "Glass Paper" – a title that certainly suggests fragility – a husband’s decision to be unfaithful risks sweeping away his current relationship and life. One character will have admiration for another that is unrequited, generally misplaced, or misplaced in time. Even as the husband is unfaithful, his pregnant wife is at home thinking of an old flame of hers. In "Inside an Ink Cloud," a young man admires his older brother, who is indifferent to him. At the same time, the older brother thinks constantly of his own unreachable, now dead role model.

Overall the book is full of beautifully executed, striking moments. As the older brother surfs, in "Inside an Ink Cloud," he becomes aware there may be a shark nearby:

As the first wave passed under him and the second wave stood before him, Shane sank into the trough, a heart-quickening space where he was unable to see the beach or the horizon. A private space, between walls of water, windless, hidden from as far as the eye can see. Then, like a fleeting smile, through the curling face of the approaching wave shot a dark shape – a porpoise or shark, an inky shadow on a cave wall made of water.

The description is often quietly meaningful, as in the title story: "Marcus dug a nail into the wet base of the Verandah’s railing. With a few twists, he gouged down through the years, through the coats of paint to the wood." And we find both despair, as Marcus wonders "if or why he should be bothered at all" and hope, when he remembers his son’s "tiny newborn hand" as it grips "the face of Marcus’s diver’s watch as if it were a discus."

The stories are valuable for, like a lot of good art, suggesting more than is literally said. I’m still pondering the idea of misplaced admiration and allegiances – how profoundly it can change a life. In creating these characters and their struggles with change, hope and regret, Bennett captures something important and meaningful in an outstanding and memorable collection of stories.

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