canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


The Topography of Love 
by Bernice Morgan
Breakwater Books, 2000

Reviewed by Lori Hahnel

The Topography of Love is the first collection of short stories by Newfoundland author Bernice Morgan. Her previous works include The Very Thought of Thee: Adventures of An Arctic Missionary (Zondervan 1952), and the young adult novels Random Passage (Breakwater 1992) and Waiting for Time (Breakwater 1995). She is also co-editor of the anthology From This Place: A Selection of Writing by Women of Newfoundland and Labrador (1978). The Topography of Love is made up of twelve longish short stories in which Morgan gives us a variety of takes on some of the different faces of love: romantic love, love between mother and child, the love of friends, young love, love later in life. Certain characters are woven through the collection, which mostly takes place in and around St. Johnís, or involve characters from St. Johnís.

"Folding Bones" deals with the disappearances of two children many years apart. I happened to read it on the day the story broke about Jessica Koopmans, the Lethbridge, AB five-year old who disappeared and was later found murdered. This added an extra dimension of creepiness to a well-paced and chilling tale. Morganís eye for detail comes to the fore in this scene where two girls are hiding out in a boysí clubhouse: "Lying at right angles, the tops of our heads touching, we could smell the boysí lives rising around us, mixing with our cigarette smoke, hovering in long pinpricks of sunlight that jabbed down through the holes in the rusting tin roof."

The regional speech inflections of the young narrator in "Not a Face You Know" are well-done, funny without making fun, as here: 

Whenever Trev and Denis talk about their job it sounds like thereíd be just two of them up at the satellite station. But when I asked Trev which one of them would do the cookin, he gave me that look, like Iím after missin some bit of information everybody else knows.

There are some really outstanding characters and situations in this book. "To The Promised Land" opens with a man throwing his estranged girlfriendís Hendrix LP collection out the window, trying to match titles with targets: "Electric Ladyland" gets winged at a hydro truck, "Axis" at a tow truck. Well, you gotta love that. "Secret Places" is the story of a Newfoundland mother visiting her daughter in the vast wasteland of Saskatchewan, finding herself lost in a sea of wheat fields and stoic, Gary Cooper-like prairie types who say little and apparently do less. 

As much as I enjoyed Morganís creativity when it comes to characters, I got tired of the extensive use of flashback in these stories. Thereís nothing wrong with that per se, but sometimes the shift can be jarring. I found the stories that took place mainly in the present to be more powerful. As the author herself reminds us, "The past is a dark hole, it can draw you under until you donít know who you are, donít know what you might do."

One little thing bothered me perhaps more than it should have, but I think it got to me because it came up more than once: Rita Hayworth being referred to as Rita Hayward. Itís an interruption in the reading experience, took me right out of the story and got me wondering if the author meant the actress Rita Hayworth or the actress Susan Hayward or some fictional amalgam of the two. Maybe this is not a big deal, true, but when I notice a glitch like this I canít help wondering why someone along the line didnít notice, and then I wonder what else might have been missed. In spite of a few flaws, however, The Topography of Love was for the most part an engaging, enjoyable read, shot through with humour and memorable characters.

Lori Hahnel is a Calgary writer and reviewer whose short fiction has appeared in Cyber Oasis and The Amethyst Review and who is completing her first novel.

 

 

 

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