canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Speak Mandarin, Not Dialect
by Elizabeth Haynes
Thistledown, 1999

Review by Patra Reiser

In stories with titles such as "All She Wants," "The Great Unlonely Silences," "Krishna saw the Universe in his mother's, father's mouth," and "Pido la Palabra," Alberta writer Elizabeth Haynes gives us a cast of characters with broken ties, whether to country, family, or lovers. If, as Salman Rushdie says, that beyond physical alienation, all of us are exiles from our past, then the past is catching up with the men and women in Speak Mandarin, Not Dialect.

Memories can be triggered by a Sarah Vaughan song in a gym, or a raging fever in India. Her voices are convincing, if a little earnest at times, delicately projecting the dreams and disappointments of each character:

"His hands feel lighter, less substantial, young, hands that never grew up. 'Do you know where you're going to?' drifts from the jukebox, their grad song. She looks at the blackheads on his forehead. She is Barbara Clare Thomas, B.Sc., R.N., twenty-nine. Who had an escape plan. And where did it get her? Right back where she started."

In this story, "Meeting of the Waters," the aforementioned Barbara has left her home in Kamloops and made a success of herself yet still feels discontent. She has nostalgically returned home, spending an evening with an old boyfriend. Haynes capture a certain Gen-X kind of feeling, a generational Zeitgeist perhaps, never being happy in the moment, forever looking to the past or searching into the future. With a great eye for detail, she situates us in the exotic locales of her stories, whether evoking the smell of ponderosa pine and sage or pinpointing the image of a pathetic beggar boy in Delhi.

Some of the reader experience is marred, however, by errors and clunky writing. For example, in her first story, "African Sleeping Sickness: Some Conversations with my Father," a world traveller's father is about to leave this mortal coil:

"My father worries about dying, though he doesn't tell me that. He has sent me a story to edit, set in William's Lake, about Joe from the Sugar Cane Reserve who won a million in the Irish Sweepstakes, wouldn't take his meds or go for the surgery my father arranged in Vancouver, died."

I had to reread this sentence quite a few times, which frustratingly interrupted the flow at the end of the story. Perhaps my biggest problem with this collection was with Hayne's endings. She quite capably, and at times, hauntingly, leads us through a story but then inexplicably hits us over the head with a pregnant-with-meaning final line. She should have more faith and confidence in her audience, assured that for the most part, we are 'getting' what it is she's trying to tell us.

Patra Reiser lives in Montreal.







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