canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Theresa Kishkan
Goose Lane Editions, 2001

Reviewed by Robert LeBlanc

A cold mist drifts over the waves, caressing a skin-hulled currach as it navigates the depths of the North Atlantic swells that separate the Irish coast from Inishbream. A solitary figure sits at the boat's oars. It is St. Brendan, come to the stone's past Ireland's end on his journey to find the world beyond the rolling grey ocean; yet at the same time it is the author, making her way back to the lichen coated cottage she has decided to call home.

It is forgivable if the reader believes that Inishbream, Theresa Kishkan's novella, is an autobiographical account of the year she spent on a small island off Ireland's west coast. Kishkan's memories must be vivid indeed, for she creates a maritime world that penetrates the reader like the chill that rolls in from the North Atlantic, crippling joints long before the vigour of youth has left. The fresh, salty air that stings your eyes and burns your lungs, the cry of seabirds and the groan of the ocean, the shifting shades of grey from the ever present mist to wet stone: Kishkan takes the images engraved on her mind and lyrically implants them into the reader's consciousness.

Wandering far from her Canadian homeland to find herself, a young woman completes a journey of emotional upheaval and growth in the time that Kishkan allots her on Inishbream. Finding the solitude she so strongly desires on the Irish island, the young woman narrator struggles to do what is expected, aspires to lose her foreignness and become an islander herself. This self-imposed metamorphosis is evident in the narrator's mannerisms, habits and speech: each slowly adapts to the surrounding world as the book progresses. The supporting characters themselves are an integral part of the primitive background, remaining, as they have for generations, unchanged in the face of nature's harsh rhythms. The narrator realizes, through her own observations, that she can never be of Inishbream: she is never offered the brown mug of local tea, is always being watched, and suffers continual chastisement for being different from the other island women.

The isolation of Inishbream allows Kishkan to develop controlled studies of broader social questions. The ever-present ogre of racism finds its way into the quiet fishing community on Ireland's west coast. The narrator is quite aware of the islanders' mistrust of foreigners, especially of those who refuse to fit into their ideals. In a much subtler fashion, this xenophobia manifests itself in the stereotypes abounding in the mind and on the lips of Sean, the narrator's island husband, as he expounds upon his suspicions about the caravan of Tinkers that seasonally passes through the pastures of the Irish mainland opposite Inishbream.

As the novella moves towards its inevitable conclusion, the men and women of Inishbream find themselves leaving the salt water that has flowed through their veins since the beginning of their collective memory for a new life in modern homes on the mainland. The island folk promise to continue steering their currachs out to their nets and lobster pots, but the narrator perceives their future as desolate in their new and foreign surroundings. Not wanting to take part in the death of Inishbream, the narrator seizes upon this opportunity to cut herself from the people who have housed her, yet never really welcomed her.

Inishbream is written with a poet's soft cadence, and lulls the reader into the comfort of a cable-knit sweater perfumed by sweet pipe tobacco. Kishkan intertwines Ireland's and Canada's disparate cultures, each land culled from the harshness of sea and earth. With the deft skill of a fisherman in his skin-covered currach, Kishkan delivers a world of simple beauty, both real and mythical.

Robert LeBlanc lives, writes and reads in small town Ontario, co-editing the "The Ultimate Hallucination" (







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