Story col­lec­tion boasts universal mo­tifs

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

IN Shaena Lam­bert’s se­cond short story col­lec­tion, the Van­cou­ver lu­mi­nary of lit­er­ary fic­tion re­lent­lessly pokes at our foibles and peels back, un­com­fort­ably, what’s real.

Lam­bert’s ex­quis­ite prose and mas­ter­ful story struc­ture leaven the heavy con­tent. Sim­ply put, this vol­ume’s good (su­perb, ac­tu­ally) and good for you.

Six of the 10 sto­ries were pub­lished pre­vi­ously, in­clud­ing three in the most re­cent edi­tions of the an­nual Best Cana­dian Sto­ries an­thol­ogy.

This would be the one weak­ness of the col­lec­tion — that it doesn’t fea­ture more new work. The good news (and sad re­al­ity for lit­er­ary pub­li­ca­tions) is that many read­ers won’t have en­coun­tered the reis­sued sto­ries be­fore.

Oh, My Dar­ling fol­lows Lam­bert’s 2007 novel, Ra­di­ance. Her first story col­lec­tion, The Fall­ing Woman, ap­peared in 2002.

The sto­ries here cen­tre on re­la­tion­ships of fam­ily and friends, usu­ally from a woman’s point of view. Most are set in B.C. Re­cur­rent, uni­fy­ing themes are ag­ing, com­pro­mise, loy­alty, love, in­fi­delity and re­venge. These are universal mo­tifs. How­ever, the sto­ries might ap­peal most to baby boomers given the vin­tage of the char­ac­ters.

The col­lec­tion takes its ti­tle from the creepy open­ing story told by a pompous, mock­ing nar­ra­tor that, we learn, is an in­va­sive lob­u­lar car­ci­noma on the pro­tag­o­nist’s breast. (“And if you please, I con­sider my­self much too dark, much too per­sonal to be de­scribed as a mere ‘lump.’ I pre­fer bou­ton­niere of death.”)

The lump taunts the mid­dle-aged school­teacher when she dis­cov­ers it: “Oh, my dar­ling! Your eyes. As though you know what is com­ing, what re­serves it will take.”

Lam­bert likens this can­cer to a cir­cus ring­mas­ter, and sur­vival to a high wire: “I will bal­ance you on a ra­zor. I will dance you across a rope so thin you will have ver­tigo.”

In the par­al­lel clos­ing story, In Del­phi, Lam­bert ex­presses our fragility as shad­ows cast on a Greek val­ley: “The shadow of ev­ery cy­press tree was picked out shrewdly, as though to say, there is life and there is death, and look how closely they lie to­gether in this land­scape.”

The story’s pro­tag­o­nist, a Cana­dian tourist, is un­aware of the can­cer she’ll soon be con­fronting when she poses her ques­tion to the no­tional or­a­cle at the tem­ple of Apollo: “How can I feel this dance, this dance of life and death, at my core?”

This is the ques­tion that lies at the heart of all 10 sto­ries as char­ac­ters are stirred to tran­scend numb­ness and grasp life.

In Crow Ride, a mother strug­gling with her teenage son’s death in­volves her­self with a strange young man. In The Cof­fin Story, an old man en­gages his rel­a­tives in the co­nun­drum of how his cof­fin will be car­ried down a tight stair­well.

In Clams, a re­tired lawyer at­tends a se­niors’ home to visit a lover from his youth. (“Soli­tary fig­ures in wheel­chairs had been set out here and there, de­ployed... like chess pieces.”) An­gered by her re­ac­tion to him, he plots his next move.

The story The Wind ab­so­lutely shocks. It echoes strains of Mar­garet At­wood’s short story Death by Land­scape ( in Wilder­ness Tips).

Lam­bert stud­ied with At­wood and shares the same so­phis­ti­ca­tion of nar­ra­tive, slip­ping ef­fort­lessly into flash­backs, teas­ing with fore­shad­ow­ing and — es­pe­cially ef­fec­tively — leap­ing into the fu­ture of a tale by re­lat­ing what the char­ac­ter will do. A de­li­cious ex­am­ple is in The Cage, where a wife con­sid­ers her hus­band’s many in­fi­deli­ties the mo­ment he’s re­ly­ing on her as­sis­tance.

Back to the clos­ing story when the tourist’s hus­band asks, “So you’re happy with your ques­tion?” She an­swers, “Ec­static.”

So is the reader.

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