canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

A Heart in Port

by Emily Givner
Thistledown Press, 2007

Reviewed by Katherine Wootton

There are essentially two positions on the relevance of author experience to their fictional work. The first is that the work stands alone; it is futile to consider the biography of the writer when reading the piece in question, since the work is all that is intended for consideration. The second theory, one that informs many a university English paper, is that understanding the author’s life experience and cultural background enriches the reader’s appreciation, and enhances the meaning of the work, in that it ties in with a genuine human experience, and is not solely relegated to the realm of the imagination.

When reviewing fiction, I generally try to stick with the former. I assume that what the reader is interested in is whether the book in question is worth reading – what are the strengths and weaknesses, what is it like, is this something they would enjoy. However, with Emily Givner’s collection of stories, A Heart In Port, I was cut off at the pass by the introduction, which included a note on the editing process of the stories – a difficult endeavour, as the author sadly passed away three years ago. I glanced at the brief author bio on the book jacket, and every element mentioned within it appears, repeatedly, in the stories contained in this collection. Would I have noticed the repetition without foreknowledge of the author’s life experience? Yes. It is not subtle. Would my opinion of these recurrences be different had I not known which elements spring Givner’s life? Perhaps.

The elements that repeat include characters with diseases related to breathing (Givner had asthma and serious allergies), an interest in music, particularly violin or cello (she was a musician), and often a rediscovering of musical practice, writing or writers (obvious), and travel or persons from abroad (in particular, older, married European men as love interests). There is also a haunted aspect to many of the stories, which I am tempted to label the spectre of death or an over-awareness of mortality, often linked to the characters struggling with breathing problems.

What I found was that the stories most closely linked to Givner’s experience tended to be better executed. This does not mean they are free from creativity and invention. On the contrary, Givner is at her best when brushing the edges of the surreal, as in her perverse Kafka-meets-Grimm fairy tale The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Cockroach, where a sickly child, Clarissa, becomes a stunningly beautiful young woman, only to be cut down by her desire to become ugly. When Clarissa suddenly becomes beautiful, she notices a subtle concern in her parents, that she compares to Gregor’s family in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, "- perhaps her parents were suffering from the same shock, the same sense of loss (…). Clarissa had turned into a beauty whereas Gregor had turned into a cockroach. But the effect was the same." Clarissa then becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming a cockroach, eventually making a grosteque costume for a dance. Givner captures the same tragic inevitability of fairy tales, and Clarissa’s cool insight about the effect of her appearance, and her interest in inverting it, is delivered with a dream-like simplicity.

In-Sook, a story about a Korean student (the title is her name) who acts as a translator and guide for her music school’s visiting professor (one of the aforementioned European men), and the unfinished story The Graveyard, which closes the collection, are the other two strongest stories in the book. In In-Sook, Givner makes great use of slightly absurd details; In-Sook has a glass eye, which she at one point gives to the professor. This creates a link between them, which results in a kind of love, and a subconscious bond. No word in wasted in this story – every conversation adds to the complex concerns, and reveals more about the desires, thoughts, and goals of her characters. She gives precise details that reveal connections between her characters – at one point, the professor pensively puts In-Sook’s glass eye in his mouth. Later, In-Sook sees a cross dangling from the professor’s neck, and has the same impulse. These brief moments reveal a shared inclination, an intensely tactile and somewhat erotic way of dealing with each other. Givner also crams in differing ideas about marriage, particularly as a transformative force and wifely role, cultural alientation, and the life of the mind, without ever overreaching or stumbling.

The Graveyard is, as a fragment, an exercise in voice, a character sketch, and an examination of the ways people come to rely on each other. While romantic liaisons are the focus of about half of these stories, the interaction here, between a somewhat elderly woman due for hip surgery, and a woman whose entire existence revolves around keeping her affectionate dog happy, is the most believable, complex, and touching portrayal of a human relationship. Here Givner reaches beyond the comparatively simple sexual connection that holds her other characters together, and recounts a more genuine coming together. The characters are more complex, their quirks are entirely necessary and driving forces behind their evolving friendship. She also successfully steps out of a particular age and type that she uses as a narrative voice for many of the other stories. The moments of wisdom are earned – as when our narrator says "The memory is a poorly designed thing. It is democratic to a fault," complaining of what she remembers of the hospital – that she hasn’t managed to recall anything more profound. I would have very much liked to have reached the ending, but as the story is, in part, about waiting, and about the beginning of a friendship, it is enough to know that there was more.

The other stories in the collection have some of the strengths of the stories mentioned above but are hampered by underdeveloped ideas, sometimes flat characterizations, and a lack of character evolution, growth, or any kind of revelation. Private Eye, Freedom Holes, and Blue Lobster could have been left out entirely. The first has some good lines ("Cameo," Glenda said, "your body’s not a toilet." – and later in the story – "You said my body wasn’t a toilet," I said. "It all depends how you use it," Glenda said.), but there is no shift, no purpose, to the story. Cameo, a 16-year-old girl, runs away from home, for no reason, shacks up in a hotel, acting a pool shark and seducing whoever comes along as a distraction, in particular an actor shooting a film locally. The plot is straight out of a creative writing class – trying to create a high-stakes situation because the character isn’t going anywhere or doing anything. Freedom Holes has a similar problem – a girl is on a training day selling coupons door-to-door. People are rude, she has a weird trainer, and the detail that her brother is in Afghanistan is added, to no particular end, to give her something more weighty to think about than being cold, wet, and bored. Which is all that happens – she is bored, and so was I. Blue Lobster is a relationship story with, again, no point. Girl meets boy, they’re both artistic, they get together and move to the Maritimes. Physical movement without intellectual or emotional shift may as well be stasis.

The rest of the collection could have matched the strength of In-Sook or Resemblance if only there had been the opportunity for a little more work, a little more editorial input. As is stands, I must already take issue with the editor, whose note caught my eye, because there are several rather blatant errors: missing punctuation, a name-spelling change that goes unnoticed, a paragraph of dialogue missing one or two key phrases, all of which distract and confuse, and cannot be attributed to avoiding altering the author’s work. The other weaknesses, unfortunately, lie with Givner.

Canadian Mint is based around an interesting premise and final twist, but the story is marred by inconsistencies, so the final revelation is accompanied by puzzlement instead of "eureka". Details could easily have been changed while still keeping the tone and underlying idea intact. Polonaise is thematically similar to In-Sook, but lacks the insightful connection between the aimless, somewhat musical, young lady and the older, European man. The aspect of tension is introduced late and Givner invents a convenient character for the purposes of explanation in the last couple of pages of the story. By introducing a genuine source of conflict earlier, and creating a more believable infatuation, the character action could have replaced the deus ex machina. A Heart in Port is hobbled by flat supporting characters and a passive main character, in a story that could have been a quite affecting portrait of family illness, duty, and the issue of loyalty. Instead, we are left with unhappy characters who are angry and sick and don’t have much relationship beyond being stuck together, which is frustrating only because none of them make any movement towards or away from anything.

As In-Sook, Resemblance, and Graveyard indicate, Emily Givner was a strong writer with a flair for the absurd and the human relationships people, of necessity, fall into. As a collection, A Heart in Port’s uneven quality underlines the misfortune of losing Givner before she could finish, or refinish, a complete collection. With more time, more practice, and an attentive editor, Givner would certainly have produced more inspired stories, perhaps branching out from her immediate experience into more unfamiliar territory, as she begins to so well in Graveyard. As it is, we must be satisfied imagining what might have been, and enjoying the work she did have time to polish.

Katherine Wootton is a Toronto-based writer, filmmaker and bookseller. She also edits the Book section for the Women's Post






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