Book review

TITLE: Chez l’arabe AUTHOR: Mireille Silcoff

At the heart of her stunning debut story collection Mireille Silcoff portrays the impacts that unexpected change can have on life. She knows such impact firsthand. Unexpected change caused her to write these stories.

Ten years ago Silcoff, a Montreal journalist who writes for the National Post and the New York Times Magazine, was diagnosed with spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak. Because of spinal fluid leaks, there was very little spinal fluid to cushion Silcoff’s brain, so it would sink to the back of her neck. What made her feel better was having her head lower than her chest, so that her brain wasn’t pulling. She couldn’t do much in this position, but she could write, and she wrote this collection’s title story, she explains, “in 15-minute daily spurts lying upside down, holding my notebook over my head.” Ever the optimist, she implies she was given an opportunity — that is, that “there wasn’t much else to do or to distract me. I was so shut down in every other way.”

She is also saying that she had choices. We might agree that her decision and actions were extraordinary ones, but we might contend that she could have done nothing. This tension between acting on one’s behalf in the face of hardship, sadness, or frustration, on the one hand, and doing nothing about it, on the other, infuses each of these eight stories.

The quietly comic “Chez l’arabe” traces the disconnect between the needs of the young narrator, who has a condition that must resemble Silcoff’s, and the care her family gives her. In “Davina” we learn how and why Anne’s love of dinner parties defines her life. “Appalachian Spring” makes the central character’s rehabilitation away from her family a time of discovery and realization. “Champ de Mars” explores lasting effects that the death of their daughter Sam has on her parents Ellen and Dory. What does life deliver, the protagonist of “Shalom Israel!” asks, when your mother decides to move in with you? After all, “a mother does not raise a child to be turned away from her door, valise in hand, at sixty.” Perhaps a tougher question: What do you do when someone whom you’d never considered a close friend proposes that she is, and in fact she wants to come visit you on her own terms? Read “Complimentarity” for some ideas. In “Flower Watching” the narrator and her husband Antoine are struggling. Antoine won’t admit what he can’t do, and he won’t listen to what his wife wants. And, “Eskimos” charts the ups and self-inflicted downs of Gerry Dubinsky’s eventful and potentially prosperous life.

Despite their focus on changes that could lead to sadness or despair, these stories aren’t dark. Silcoff gives us characters who understand their choices and thus who accept their utterly human acquiescence, resilience, or independence. As she details these understandings, she reveals her own disarmingly stirring attention to emotions that inspire these choices.

 

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