Monday, July 30, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: All the Voices Cry

I do a lot of book reviews in the academic world.  This is my first for the blog.  If you'd prefer to read about poo, please skip to the entry below (though I notice I mention poo in the review too--egads my brain is only ever scatological).

I’ve been friends with Alice Petersen since we were both graduate students at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  Alice was, in fact, responsible for orienting  an incoming class of students which included me.  She took us to the lake, and then sat in dog poo accidentally and had to excuse herself.  I remember her handling the incident wryly, accommodating both gross factor and funniness.

That skill in handling what Keats, with more plangent tones, might call life’s “mingled contrarities” is fairly central to Alice’s writing, as All the Voices Cry proves.

The collection of short stories presents characters humbled by circumstance (middle-age, bachelorhood, loss, infidelity, and, frequently, too much responsibility for another’s welfare).  Deftly, these characters are not figures of Tragedy, for Alice writes them as vulnerable and odd.  They respond to circumstance making all manner of peculiar bargains with the mundane world (just as real humans under duress do). 

One protagonist tries to make a cancer remedy from scratch (bargain: it will help her sick mother and perhaps redeem their relationship).  Secretly though, this woman would like her mother to die: it’s a surprise even to her when she thinks it “Isabella stopped short.  She had not expected this thought to occur to her.”  Isabella is caring and uncaring, thoughtful, yet delightfully obtuse to her own motives.  So too is the mother who imagines how easy it would be to leave her son to her sister’s care but decides not to, and also the wife who leaves her husband in a remote location while on holiday, returns their rental car, and waits for her flight at the airport before finally, reluctantly, taking a taxi to retrieve him.  

These women are fantastically ambivalent even as Alice has them experience the most profound emotional moments in  human life.  I love this, for Alice’s characters are unclear about their feelings in definitive moments, and aren’t we all?  Ordinarily, our uncertainty is not terribly funny, and we cover it up with the rhetoric of certainty.  In All the Voices Cry, it is funny though.  Humans are odd, weird creatures looking up from under their bangs to try and see things more clearly, and often having no idea at all how to feel about what they see.  It’s not just women protagonists here: a favorite character of mine is Norman, who thinks he will die on a certain day, and tries to travel across the international dateline to cheat fate.

The second half of the collection is especially good: Here Alice is as accomplished and proficient as that Other Alice (Munro), and I think even better,  for Alice Petersen’s plots move with a quicker, lighter foot through the most embattled terrain of human relationships.

There are fantastic words evoking far-flung locales : “Tabernouche” in a conversation in Quebec rubbing shoulders with a New Zealand “great matai tree . . . huge and towering [with] flax and ferns and moss that sprouted along its branches.”  Alice interweaves stories in this latter part of the book too, so that a couple wearing leis and necking next to a bank machine in an airport appears, as incidental background, in two stories.

Throughout, characters are haunted by memory.  They remember themselves as younger and more lovely, they remember people who have long since died, and they remember the ways they used to love.  Alice even has characters remembering how certain events become canonized in gossip, as in, for instance, the case of “Scottish Annie . . . dandling her young man in the bedroom while the house burned down and the baby sat in the backyard with Lord Knows What in its mouth.”

All the Voices Cry is a good summer read (so much takes place outdoors in this collection), a good read for those with responsibility, ambivalence and oddity in their life (most mothers that I know), a good read for those with wanderlust (Quebec, Tahiti and New Zealand, Oh my!) and just generally a good read, even if you don’t happen to be lucky enough to know the author personally.  

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