canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

A Message for Mr. Lazarus
by Barbara Lambert
Cormorant Books, 2000

Reviewed by Joy Hewitt Mann

This collection runs the gamut from stories that don't quite work, stories that work well, and stories that stand teetering on the edge of greatness. But no story here fails; all are enjoyable, if not all readable. 

Understandably, the title story "A Message for Mr. Lazarus," winner of The Malahat Review's novella prize, is one of the better offerings in this collection, but not the best. It suffers from the same malady that affects many of the stories here, namely, the story line is confusing at times, not being sure whether it is about the narrator, the character that the narrator is telling us about, both, or some extraneous character such a s a wife or husband. Often, too much background material is given, more than the well-educated reader needs or wants. 

One disconcerting feature of Lambert's writing - a personal bias, I suppose - is her use of asides; that is, phrases bracketed or italicized, or otherwise set apart from the narrative, as in the first page of the title story "A Message for Mr. Lazarus." 

"And when I tell his story to myself now, some years later (I have been confined to my bed these last months, with little to do but run through the events of my life, which turn out to be lamentably few), I like to imagine all of it - all of it - from his point of view." 

Lambert tells a story out of a story - first person narrative speculating o n another character's life - a style which can be confusing when it first happens, but a reader can get used to it fairly quickly. It is part of Lambert's style. 

Although this collection does not deliver much variety - something this reader admires in a writer - it is not necessarily a bad thing. If you enjo y Lambert's style you have a plethora of enjoyment ahead. This reader, however, finds that she gets a tad bored when all the stories in a collection have a sameness, as is the case here. 

But these are all good stories, though the first "An Incident" falls slightly to fair. I found it worth my while to read them, worth my while primarily because of the two gems that hide in the shadow of the Malahat winner: "Evolution" and "The Queen of Saxony." 

Whereas the awkward story-within-a-story format of most of the work in this collection might be a flaw, in "The Queen of Saxony" that same awkwardness of style is what makes the story so rewarding, for it is the story of a woman whose mind works in awkward, nongeometric lines. 

"It can't be helped. At the heart of any story such as this there is a moment like the centre of a chocolate cream. Intelligent people wince, climb into their Jeep Cherokees, head for exercise class. Adele knows this too. Adele knows that everyone she knows would close the book at this point. 

"They would sneak back later, all the same. They would creep back with their plain brown wrappers and their flashlights just because of who she is, just because they would love to see her make a fool of herself for once, just because they had to know what happened, plain self-admitted prurience. 

"What happened indeed? What happened, Adele? How could you?" 

I loved this story. For most readers, I believe that one, or two stories will stand out. It is all a matter of taste. With this collection, definitely so. 

And so, I come to "Evolution," a short story which begins with the line, "Elephants are clouds that have been sentenced to earth." And finally, Lambert sticks to the point, sticks to the story, with the thoughts of Terry Gambril, a "washed-up geezer of not even fifty" lumbering across the page. The author is happily in hiding. 

"He grabs the pen at last. `My name is Terry Gambril,' he gets down, in a wild looping hand. "He has to give a nod to that, give credit where it is due. 'My name is Ozymandias' . . . . He can hear his dad declaiming that, of a Sunday morning, while Terry's mother stares out the window at the auto-body shop across the alley and lights another cigarette. 'My name is Ozymandias. King of Kings. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!' Proffering a plate of bacon and fried bread." 

Lambert is at her best when she sticks with one person telling their own story, as in "Evolution." In comparison, the other stories seem mere writer's acrobatics. 

For the reader with time and patience this is a worthwhile collection; for those who seek the illumination of one blinding story, you may find it here. If all the stories in this collection were "Queens" or "Evolutions" this would be an award-worthy collection. Lambert has a way with words that given a few years could see her up there with the big names of Canadian literature. 

"I would love to illuminate the ticking of the clockwork of the universe, I would love to be able to make clear in the curve of a woman's cheek, or the lines of a rock, or the whiteness of a flower, how everything relates to every other thing . . . I'd love to have an artist's verve . . ., or the nerve to wrap the Reichstag, the confidence that rests on supreme technical control." -- from "Where the Bodies are Kept."

Joy Hewitt Mann is the author of Clinging to Water (Boheme Press, 2000), a short story collection.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.