Claire Battershill, Circus (Review)

Claire Battershill, CircusMetaphors and allusions can be dangerous. The inside-front-flap-blurb for Claire Battershill’s debut collection of short stories, Circus, concludes that the book “is a beautiful reminder that sometimes everyday life can be the greatest show on earth”. A reviewer on the back cover describes it as “the kind of book you’ll want to run away with”. As I finished it, however, my first thought was that “life is a circus”, meaning it can be disconcerting and unpredictable. Luckily for Battershill, all these work, and are encompassed by her epigraph from ee cummings’ play Him which says “Damn everything but the circus … damn everything that won’t […] throw its heart into tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, the full existence.”

A selection of stories from this book co-won the 2013 Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award, and, before that in 2008, the title story won the CBC Literary Award for Short Fiction. It has some cred in other words, but you might be wondering how I came to it. It was, in fact, a Mothers Day gift from Daughter Gums (DG) back in 2014. She and I had seen the book on a Canadian authors stand in a Toronto bookshop a couple of months earlier that year, and she noticed that it was one that I had eyed particularly covetously. (It helped that it is a beautifully designed book and is lovely to hold!) I was thrilled when I opened my gift, and apologise to DG for taking so long to complete it.

There are nine stories in the book, with the titular story “Circus” occupying the middle. Two are told first person, the rest third. I do like short story authors to mix their voices up a bit and to not be afraid of third person, as sometimes new writers can seem to be. Battershill uses the voices well. The guide in the Hendricks Memorial Miniature Museum (“Each small thing”) talks to the reader as though we are in her tour group. First person was needed here to effectively convey the guide’s self-absorption. It’s perhaps not so critical in “Two-man luge: A love story”, but the first person voice does enable us to feel the narrator’s uncertainty and longing for connection.

What I love about this collection is the variety of her characters and the often bizarre situations they find themselves. We have Henry Bottlesworth (“A gentle luxury”) who “has given himself  thirty-one days to find love on the internet” after ten years of enduring the matchmaking efforts of friends and family. This is not so unusual a situation, and the ending is probably the most predictable, and yet Battershill injects such warmth into what could be a frustrating character. The next story (“Sensation”) switches gear completely to a story about a single father and the tent he buys for his daughter’s 16th birthday. They pitch it in the living room:

Annie loves it … She loves how the energy saver-light bulb glows like a dying star through the waterproof nylon, how scents from the rest of the house filter in, from time to time, through the mesh windows … She is open to the elements, but there’s no danger of rain or mosquitoes, no need for thermal underwear or finicky gas lanterns. This is camping at its finest.

Haha, love it. From here, the tent becomes a conduit first to a closer relationship between father and daughter, and then with the neighbourhood, and then … well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it is a gorgeous story that manages to be warm while also having a little dig about art, fads and fame.

And so the stories continue. Here are some more. There’s the couple who buy a house in the country (“Brothers”) only to find that they’ve also acquired two elderly brothers, shepherds, one blind, the other deaf. Or the widowed grandfather who listens to the Northern Lights and wants to share this love with his grandson (“The collective name for Ninjas”). Or the wife who goes to New York with her husband for their first no-children holiday, only to return alone (“Quite everyday looking”).

The stories are warm, and humane, sometimes humorous, but all about relationships (with partners, parents, children, others) and the decisions made and not made. They are written with a lovely eye for those details that can lift them out of the ordinary:

Henry has, with time and experience, learned a thing or two about the culinary ins and outs of first dates. Sushi, for instance, invites a rice explosion. Ordering a saucy noodle dish or a dressing-laden salad is asking for a spill, and Chinese broccoli is impossible to eat all in one bite without losing one’s dignity. (“A gentle luxury”)

Karen has the face of someone who has swan-dived into love and never hit bottom. (“Brothers”)

The New York version of her was slim, with bare, smooth legs rather than thick, sturdy calves in support socks. And surely as soon as the plane touched down at JFK, she would instantly know how to apply liquid eyeliner precisely and her hair would emerge in elegant finger waves when she lifted her head from the neck pillow. (“Quite everyday looking”)

So, “greatest show on earth”? Not if you think this means fireworks and high drama. But if it means for you the idea that seemingly ordinary lives can be surprisingly varied and rich, then, yes, Circus fills the bill – and fills it with confidence and aplomb.

Endings are hard. Everyone knows it – the end of life, the end of a holiday, and of course the end of a novel. EM Forster knew it – and wrote about it in Aspects of the novel. Endings are particularly important in short stories, I’d argue, and Claire Battershill’s endings are good ones. There are no twists or neat resolutions here. Just a sense that characters have reached some point in life, major or minor, and are now moving on – in a direction that is usually clear to the reader but not completely spelled out. I like that.

POSTSCRIPT: It seems that Circus is out of print, but you can read one of the short stories, “Two-man luge: A love story”, online.

Claire Battershill
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014
ISBN: 9780771012785

On the literary road, in Ontario

I’m back from my North American trip and, as you can tell, didn’t find much time to post while I was there. It was a packed three and a half weeks, catching up with our daughter, sightseeing, and meeting people, many of whom I’d got to know via online reading groups. I didn’t find much time (or, indeed, energy) to read, but would like to share some literary tidbits from our trip.

Chapters Indigo Bookshop

Canadian authors stand, Chapters Indigo, Eaton Centre, Toronto

I had hoped to check out a local independent bookshop or two but things – including weather that didn’t encourage meandering – conspired against me, so the only bookshop I visited in the end was a chain, Chapters Indigo. I was intrigued to see how much it had diversified into all sorts of products, including personal and household goods. I guess this is how a bookshop survives these days. My main aim in visiting was, of course, to check out Canadian authors. Unfortunately the shop, while fine in its way, was just like a chain. The staff did their best but were not really able to provide the sort of advice I wanted, like, you know, the names of Canadian authors besides the well-known ones like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. They had a lot of the latter’s books, the willing sales assistant said, since she’d just won the Pulitzer! I didn’t bother to correct him but simply smiled, because he had done his best –  and then I noticed that we were actually standing next to a little display stand of just what we were looking for, that is, a stand in which all the books were tagged “Canadian author” and were all new authors to me! I was attracted to Circus, a book of short stories by Claire Battershill, but didn’t buy it then. Instead, I bought a book by another author I know, Margaret Laurence, for Ma Gums.

Toronto Book Awards

photo 2 croppedAnd then, quite serendipitously on the same day, my daughter and I were walking down Queen Street West and walked right over plaques embedded in the pavement for the Toronto Book Awards Authors Walk of Fame. The awards were established by the City of Toronto in 1974 and are awarded each year for the year’s best fiction or non-fiction book or books “that are evocative of Toronto”. All shortlisted authors receive $1000, with the winning author receiving an extra $10000.

I was intrigued to see that one of the winners of the first award – in the early years there were often multiple winners – was William Kurelek whose art we’d come across at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and the book he won for is called O Toronto which contained his series of paintings of Toronto. The other two inaugural winners were historian Desmond Morton’s Mayor Howland and novelist Richard Wright’s In the middle of a life. I have his best known work, Clara Callan, on my TBR pile.

William Campbell

We visited Toronto’s historic Campbell House, the home of Chief Justice William Campbell from 1822 until he died in 1834. His Georgian-style house is the oldest surviving building from the original town of York, but the reason I am including him here is that he presided in 1826 over the trial of the rioters who destroyed William Lyon Mackenzie’s printing press on which he printed his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. The house museum suggests the case is a significant early test for freedom of the press in Canada. Mackenzie went on to become a politician, and in 1834, the first mayor of the new city of Toronto (as York was renamed when it was incorporated).

Stratford Festival

Festival Theatre, Stratford

Festival theatre, Stratford

This festival, previously known as the Stratford Shakespearean and then Shakespeare Festival, is, according to Wikipedia, an internationally-recognized annual celebration of theatre running from April to October in Stratford, which is about 2-hours drive west of Toronto. It’s a very pretty little town, on the Avon River, and has a replica Globe Theatre. I was intrigued to discover yet another Shakespeare based or inspired festival. They seem to abound, and Wikipedia has quite a list of them. Many, like this one, don’t  focus exclusively on Shakespeare but his works form their backbone. Daughter Gums has been a keen attendee over the last two years of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and several of my online reading group friends love the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But back to Stratford. I was given a beautiful coffee table book, Robert Cushman’s Fifty seasons at Stratford, by Emmy whom I met for the first time on this trip but have “known” for many years through online reading groups. The book is organised chronologically with each chapter named for that period’s artistic director. And, it has an introduction by another Canadian author I’ve read, Timothy Findley, who acted at the very first festival at Stratford in 1953. The first director was Tyrone Guthrie, and some of the actors Findley worked alongside were Alex Guinness, Irene Worth and Douglas Campbell. This was clearly no amateur undertaking! Cushman, in his preface, mentions that another Canadian novelist (I’ve read), Robertson Davies, had played a role in establishing the Festival, had been on its board, and had written about its early history. This is a gorgeously produced book, with an excellent index and a chronological list at the back of every play performed at the festival from 1953 to 2002.

… and now, with jet lag making its presence felt, that is about all I have for you tonight, but at least I have given you a taste of some of the things that have occupied my mind over the past three weeks or so.

Every folkie knows … Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen at Centennial Vineyards

Leonard Cohen at Centennial Vineyards, 2009

I recently wrote about the National Folk Festival in relation to Australian stories and history, but I can’t resist also writing a little post about “the man” because he was, it seemed, everywhere. I’m exaggerating of course but he – Leonard Cohen, of course – did seem to keep popping up.

There were performers who sang his songs, such as Ami Williamson who commenced her show with “Hallelujah”. You might think that is a little cliched but nothing about Ami is cliched … she put her own stamp on the song and got us in the mood for an energy-packed show that ranged through pop, folk, country and opera, both covers and her own original creations. Her “Daughter-in-law’s lament” is a hoot. She is a versatile gal.

Ruth Roshan, with Tango Noir, also did a Cohen song, though her choice was “Everybody knows”. The ambience was more 1930s French salon, and the dusky, sensual mood of the tango, but somehow Cohen fit right in there and Ruth pulled it off, despite her gentle voice and inviting smile.

Other performers though struck out into something different – into songs inspired by and/or featuring Cohen. Margret RoadKnight sang a whimsical song by Canadian singer songwriter, Nancy White, titled “Leonard Cohen’s never gonna bring my groceries in”. In case you don’t know it, here are a few lines to give you a flavour:

I’ve a husband and a baby, there’s another on the way.
And, like Leonard, I am aching in the place I used to play.
But really, I’m enjoying all this domesticity.
Hey, I never have to deal with Warren Beatty’s vanity.
But there is one thing I regret, and my regret is genuine.
Leonard Cohen’s never gonna bring my groceries in.

Since RoadKnight – and most of her audience – were of a certain age, this song went down very well!

And finally, it wasn’t only Australian performers who paid homage to the man. There was also (the rather lovely, I must say) English performer, Martha Tilston. She spoke of her envy of Cohen’s songwriting ability and said his line from “The stranger song”, “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger”, made her feel like hanging up her songwriting hat”. Instead though, she wrote a song about her inspiration, “Old Tom Cat”. Its opening lines are:

The tilt of your hat
Old tom cat
You wear truth like a necklace
It hangs around your poetry.

… and it includes references to Suzanne, Maryanne, Hallelujah and, of course, Joseph.

Funny how all these performers all women! That’s how it goes …

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

This is the second time I have read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Much as I enjoyed it the first time around, I probably wouldn’t have read it again if it hadn’t been scheduled for one of my online bookgroups. However, given that scheduling and the fact that I had recently listened to Simon Armitage’s dramatisation of The odyssey, I didn’t mind reading it again – and it is short! My rereading though ended up being a little disjointed as I was trying to finish off a number of competing contracts at the time as well as prepare for a ten-day trip to our warm Top End. This review may be similarly disjointed!

The book is part of Canongate’s Myths series in which recognised writers were asked to retell well-known myths. At the time of publication, Atwood said that she tried a number of myths and had nearly given up when she suddenly recollected the story of Penelope and her hanged maids – and her childhood reaction to it. The result is a rather fresh – and cheeky – look at the story told through Penelope’s and the hanged maids’ eyes, from, not surprisingly, a feminist (or at least female) perspective.

The story is told through a large number of short chapters in Penelope’s voice, and these are interspersed with commentary from the hanged maids, emulating, appropriately enough, the idea of a Greek chorus. The way Atwood uses it, the chorus provides a satiric perspective on Penelope’s view of the story. The story is told in flashback, with the narrators all speaking from Hades, where they now reside. It is not a standard revisionist feminist treatise that simplifies the world to one of gender power discrepancies (even though that is what underlies it all). We get to “feel” what it might have been like to have lived then. Atwood’s characters are “real” and operate in a complex world where game-playing and manipulation are de rigueur if you are going to survive.

In Homer, Penelope is presented as “the quintessential faithful wife” (Atwood’s introduction) who brings up their son and cleverly fends off suitors while waiting patiently for Odysseus’ return. When he returns, he kills the suitors and twelve of Penelope’s maids. Atwood, again in her introduction, says that in choosing to tell the story through Penelope and the maids she wanted to focus on “what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really doing?”. Her Penelope is something rather more than the constant wife of The odyssey. She, the part daughter of a watery Naiad, is a slippery character to pin down. She is highly jealous of her beautiful cousin Helen (she of Troy fame) and she is capable of making her own power plays. She is of high birth, contrasting her with the twelve maids who, by their own admission “were born to the wrong parents. Poor parents, slave parents, peasant parents, and serf parents…”.

What I enjoyed most about this book – besides the story Atwood tells – is its sly humour. It is genuinely funny, albeit in a dark or sometimes gruesome way. Much of the humour arises out of Penelope’s playing with the truth. In fact the book plays continually with the idea of “stories”. In the first chapter, Penelope says:

Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself. I’ve had to work myself up to it; it’s a low art, tale-telling … So, I’ll spin a little thread of my own.

A little further on in the book, she says, when reporting one of the prevailing stories about her, that “there’s some [my emphasis] truth to this story”. And so, as we read we need to remember that she too is telling us a story, and that there’s no guarantee that her story is any more “true” than another’s. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the maids comment on what Penelope tells us. Their and Penelope’s perspectives are not always the same. That is, their truths are different. This notion of stories versus stories is made even more clear in the chapter titled “Waiting” in which Penelope recites all the opposing stories and rumours about what Odysseus was doing/what was happening to him during the 10 years of his return. Reader beware, I say. In fact, at one point in the book where Penelope questions whether the “maids were making some of this up”, I wrote in the margin “Where is the truth”? I love the way Atwood plays with myth-making in a book about a myth – and, in doing so, also calls into question her own storytelling. Very postmodern!

I won’t go on. It’s a little uneven, with the maids’ story in particular being not quite as well integrated as it perhaps could. And yet, I’d recommend it, if you haven’t already read it. It’s clever, funny and compassionate – but its compassion is not a naive one. Rather, it has wide open eyes and knows that nothing is ever as simple as it looks – particularly when you find yourself in a situation where there is imbalance of power. Games will be played – and the powerless, such as women and particularly poor maids, will usually lose. And this, in the end, is Atwood’s (somewhat heavy-handed) point. As Penelope says in her last chapter:

Even with my limited access I can see that the world is just as dangerous as it was in my day, except that the misery and suffering are on a much wider scale. As for human nature, it’s as tawdry as ever.

Margaret Atwood
The Penelopiad
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 9781920885953
NB: Cover image used above is from the new 2007 edition.

Alice Munro, Dimension

Alice Munro, from Random House Australia

Alice Munro, from Random House Australia

Alice Munro won this year’s Man Booker International Prize. You probably know that she is a Canadian short story writer. I have read many of her short stories over the years, though not as many as I would like.


Her short story “Dimension” was published in the New Yorker in 2006, and was then included in the 2007 edition of Best American Short Stories. In some ways, particularly in its tone, it reminded me of Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin. Like “Kevin” it deals with the build up and fallout after a terrible tragedy caused by a family member, but the details of the tragedy and the focus of the story is different.

Munro clues us in very early that something terrible has happened. In the second para she writes this about the main character through whose point of view we see the story: “She liked the work – it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out SO THAT [my emphasis] she could sleep at night”. Ah, we think, why does she have trouble sleeping? And then at the end of that paragraph is: “She didn’t want to have to talk to people”. The next para is more clear that she has been involved in something terrible: she had been “in the paper”. In this paragraph we get the first mention of “he”. “He” is nameless in the first few mentions, conveying to us a sense of mystery and, yes, menace. Not naming him at this point also depersonalises him; it makes him “other” to we named people.

This, then, is a story about one of those terrible family tragedies that we see in the news and wonder about: how did it get to that point, how does the mother (or whoever is left) keep going, etc? Munro explores these questions sensitively, conveying how Doree’s youth and inexperience resulted in her making a poor decision at a vulnerable time in her life which then stunted her further development of self – with devastating consequences. And, she does a good job of building up a picture of a controlling man (the husband Lloyd), but through Doree’s eyes so that we see her growing awareness of his nature. Her awareness though is accompanied by an uncertainty born of someone who does not know enough to judge properly, to know what is “normal” and what isn’t. Munro also makes us believe in Doree’s post-tragedy path – her going-through-the-motions distance from those around her and her tie to the perpetrator who is the only person to offer her a “refuge” peculiar though that refuge is. Munro’s resolution to all this could be seen as a little melodramatic, but it is clever…and, reassuringly, somewhat hopeful.

In other words, like all Munro’s stories, this is well worth a read.