canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Emmaís Hands
by Mary Swan
Porcupine's Quill, 2003

Reviewed by Scott Albert

Weíre all supposed to like wind chimes, tinkling as they announce every gust of air. I do not like wind chimes.

Iím sitting near the wind chimes on my parentís porch, trying to decide what to say about Mary Swanís collection of short stories, Emmaís Hands. Perhaps prompted unconsciously by Ms. Swan I decided to take a sabbatical to my parentís country home, a kind of low rent writerís retreat. And now that I, like Ms. Swanís stories, have turned my back on the madness of modern urban life, Iím able to turn my undisciplined attention to this much overdue review.

My current surroundings of deepest darkest Woodlawn, near the bustling urban centre of Carleton Place, are an ideal place to consider Ms. Swanís stories. Warm and rural. Quiet. Slow. The sounds of humming birds fill the pauses between chimes of wind, and the miraculous flashes of lightning bugs create constellations in the trees at night. If only my husband was cheating on me, I could be in one of Ms. Swanís stories right now.

But in that sense, it only serves to distance itself from the themes of Ms. Swanís stories, because as far as I can tell, there are no women for miles who are lonely, isolated or suffering the quiet invisible chains of being female. Ms. Swan gets over that by placing her characters in the rural past of Canada and Israel, where we can all agree that all women got a raw deal.

There go those wind chimes again.

Combined with that sense of historical wrong is a sense of regret for those times slipping into history. As if through all the alienation and difficulties of Ms. Swanís women in, like one story, 1917 France things were better in those simpler, closer-to-nature times before SUVs, ATMs, and MTV. Thereís a hint that nature and life are not only inherently cruel and capricious, but also tied to the indefinable qualities of womanhood, to be shouldered with the stoic suffering of a Protestant cosmos.

This suffering seems to be the function of being a woman in Ms. Swanís fiction - to hold their communities together with their bare hands and bruised hearts, while enduring miscarriages, betrayal by love and friendship, social oppression, and even war itself.

Before I get too far along here, I realize that some of you are going to be reading this in order to decide whether or not to suggest this book for your book club. It is a natural choice, of course. A woman writer writing about woman. A blurb from Alice Munro. So hereís my review. Some stories are good. Some stories are not so good. (And thatís why itís easier to review short stories than it is to review novels.) So you might as well put Emmaís Hands on your book club list. Itís either that or read Harry Potter again.

And besides. Reading about suffering always makes us feel noble, especially if it ties in with such firmly established myths like the alienation and dignified country poverty of early Canadian life.

Some of the stories are quite moving and affecting. Ms. Swanís best moments are when she allows her woman to participate in their fates, and when their motivations are left unspoken, perhaps even unknown, to allow us to work to understand why they did it. In these stories, like the story "Peach," complex relationships are revealed as just that, complex.

Unfortunately, many other stories cling blindly to the recent mythology of womanhood - that women are bound by a society that doesnít value community or nature - and these stories paint people as being simple. Life, love, and men are mean and womanís chance at happiness are limited to accepting those facts.

In contrasting Canadian and US culture, there are two opposite underlying mythologies. In the States, they came to an empty land and they conquered it. In Canada, they came to a forbidding wasteland and fought to survive. You can feel that Canadian sense of Pyrrhic victory in Ms. Swanís stories.

I donít know about you, but currently I am struggling to ignore the wind chimes at my parentís comfortable house, and wondering what I will watch on satellite TV later.

I believe that these stories donít accidentally follow this Canadian mythology. Ms. Swan can write, and confidently captures the details of period life. She reads like the kind of writer who is as comfortable in poetry as she is in fiction. As with many Canadian writing, thereís a level of mastery of the grammar and style that can only be beat into you by years of university study. It brings with it a need for realism and historical accuracy - because heaven forbid that you do anything wrong.

And, if judged by the conventions of the Canadian literary genre, Ms. Swan does everything right. This was, after all, a genre that grew from the politically correct universities of the seventies. Ms. Swan rides down the centre of this well traveled road, and as a result she views the worlds of her stories exclusively through the oppression and suffering of her women. I think thatís a disservice to everybody, women or man.

It seems to me that any philosophy based on exclusion is at the top of a very steep, slippery slope. Instead, letís understand not only our difference but, as Mr. Trudeau said, that which unites us. That, to me, is the crowing achievement of a cultural work. That which unites us as a culture. So order this book for your book club, especially if the club is all women. But donít worry if you miss it. As long as the governments of Canada pump money into the politically correct genre of Canadian literature, Ms. Swan isnít going anywhere.

And, sadly, neither are wind chimes.
 

 

 

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