Mentionables Reviews by Jay Ruzesky

Hiromi Goto (author) and Ann Xu (illustrator), Shadow Life (New York: First Second Books, 2021). Hardbound, 368 pp., $33.99.

Sharon Kirsch, The Smallest Objective (Vancouver: New Star, 2020). Paperbound, 272 pp., $22.

Sharon McCartney, Villa Negativa: A Memoir in Verse (Windsor: Biblioasis, 2021). Paperbound, 72 pp., $19.95.

Jane Munro, Glass Float (London: Brick, 2020). Paperbound, 86 pp., $20.00.

Susan Olding, Big Reader (Calgary: Freehand, 2021). Paperbound, 204 pp., $22.95.

Dominique Béchard, One Dog Town (Kentville: Gaspereau, 2019). Paperbound, 78 pp., $19.95.

Shadow LifeEnduring graphic novels—like Maus or Persepolis or Sabrina—give readers a rich and textured story, and Hiromi Goto’s and Ann Xu’s Shadow Life is in that class of book that provides profound delights. The novel is a Vollendungsroman, a term coined by Constance Rooke to describe a story of winding up in old age that involves an affirmation of life, in this case while facing death. Kumiko is a seventy‐sixyear‐ old Japanese Canadian woman who breaks free of her assisted‐living home and rents an apartment in funky East Van. She struggles with her own body, with the anxieties and demands of her adult daughters, with solitude, and with death itself, which shows up as a dark shadow and has an epic encounter with Kumiko’s secondhand vacuum cleaner. What Kumiko makes us wonder, perhaps indirectly, is why, given the age of the baby‐boom population in North America, there are so few stories being told with heroes who are lumpy, creaky, sexual, full of wisdom in many ways, and also stubborn, and sometimes reckless. Kumiko wants to confront death on her own terms and her initial escape is a metaphor for a way of understanding that death is coming and that fear is not our only option when it shows up. As the story progresses, it is increasingly magical and Xu’s illustrations become especially important in terms of representing what may be a state of mind, or may be part of the fabulous life of Kumiko whose end is in sight.

The Smallest ObjectiveIn things there is meaning, but the sense of importance is often very personal, and when someone leaves the world, it is up to someone else to go through their stuff and, without the context the owner gave it, decide what is valuable. Thus, the play here on objects and objectivity; the trigger for this memoir is the decline and death of the writer’s mother and while processing the objects left behind, Sharon Kirsch uses an investigative objectivity that allows her to find the story in those things. Kirsch is very good at creating narrative tension and at bringing characters to life, so she includes the reader in her quest, which eventually involves ground‐penetrating radar to locate, before the final sale of the family home, the “treasure” her father may have hidden under the bedroom floor, and we discover along with her the truth behind the rumours surrounding great uncle Jockey Fleming and his questionable connections. Whether the thing that starts the story going is a commissioned house or a collection of vials of sand, Kirsch raises issues of death, memory, romanticism, and family to show the ways that the tight focus is actually about the big picture.

Villa NegativaVilla Negativa is a collection of three intensely personal reflections rendered in precise language and spanning an emotional range so wide that readers should do some mental stretching before reading the book. While examining anorexia, a failed or failing relationship, and a sister’s long, agonizing illness, McCartney manages to expose humour, so that the reader is compelled forward even as we are anxious about how things are going to come out in the end. The book’s subtitle, “A Memoir in Verse” is, perhaps, a non‐starter for a discussion about form. Written in poetic way and using couplets and short stanzas, these pieces are poems, and are also beautifully crafted, and very readable personal essays. In some ways, the text defies categorization, but does it matter? What is more important is the voice that looks back in retrospect at troubled times and hones and polishes until the very richness of those dark events begins to shine.

Glass FloatIn this follow up to her 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection, Jane Munro uses prose lines and shorter poetic structures to create contemplative forms. By taking a close look at the world and specifically its places, events, and things—jasmine flowers, a turntable, transformation masks, a glass fishing float—Munro brings exterior observation inward and encourages the reader to understand the spiritual importance of what surrounds us, so the glass float of the title poem becomes a metaphor for the entire book. Like the rest of the poems in each of the three sections, or perhaps simply like the voice Munro employs here, the glass ball is made both to contain and to float, and its horizon reveals fragility as well as imperfections. Ultimately what is revealed is a poet at the height of her powers.

Big Reader A “reader” is, of course, one who reads. It can be a (big) selection of writings, often for the study of a writer or a particular subject, and it can be a device for viewing things more clearly. In this collection of essays, Susan Olding weaves the consequential impact that literature has had on her into the fabric of her examination of life. Her understanding of her journey through a love affair is interlaced with thinking about Anna Karenina; she thinks her way through stepmotherhood partly through remembering wicked stepmothers of folklore. The result is a book in which the parts make up a remarkable whole. The structure of the collection is extraordinary—ideas mentioned in early pieces recur in more detail later, in the way that a minor character might become important to the events of a novel and a small life event might seem significant later when we see that it is part of a pattern. Olding is also a poet and fiction writer and the full range of her extensive literary skills make this book a compelling read.

One Dog TownThe wilderness of Northern Ontario has deep roots in the Canadian settler psyche, especially in contrast to the urban landscapes of Toronto and Montreal. The poems in Dominique Béchard’s debut collection inhabit this territory, where “the mosquito’s kingdom of cool” and the “woodland noises” create “a solemn sense being / in catastrophe’s vicinity or way.” There is a Northern Ontario gothic sensibility that haunts the work in this collection where the timber wolf is a “sentinel / to what evaporates” and there is “dope keeping us young / until it doesn’t.” These are lovely, smart lyric poems of longing and loss, and are also a celebration of the difficulties of life. In their own complicated way, they are even poems of hope.

—Jay Ruzesky

As in The Malahat Review, 216, fall 2021