1209 Novellas of the coast and interior
Three novellas reviewed by Miranda Marini:
by Theresa Kishkan
Madeira Park & Amsterdam: Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2016
$18.00 / 9780978005450
by Frances Boyle
Madeira Park & Amsterdam: Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2018
$20.00 / 9780978005467
by Barbara Lambert
Madeira Park & Amsterdam: Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2021
$20.00 / 9780978005474
Reviewed by Miranda Marini
Occupying the space between short story and novel, the novella is a piece of fictional prose that typically reflects a satiric, serious, or sentimental narrative, interconnecting and weaving together a series of events and scenes to address a particular thematic issue or idea. Despite their compressed format, these stories offer significant depth and complexity, and their authors masterfully optimise this small space, drawing readers into the intricate and vivid storytelling with their succinct attention to detail and nuance. However, many mainstream and commercial publishers overlook and reject the publication of these texts due to economic feasibility and projected readership.
Noting this lack of representation and lack of publishing opportunities in the printing industry, Theresa Kishkan and Anik See sought to rectify this issue with the creation of a small, international press, which specialises in the publication of novellas and other unconventional forms of writing. Fish Gotta Swim Editions gives novella writers the chance to publish their works as standalone texts with visually appealing covers reflective of the story’s content, and their small size is a perfect addition to any bookshelf.
To date, three novellas have been published under the Fish Gotta Swim Editions label, each of which will be explored in the sections below — Miranda Marini
Theresa Kishkan, Winter Wren (2016):
At the age of fifty-nine, Grace Oakden lives a comfortable and cultured life in France; however, that life is unexpectedly upended when her long-term love affair with Jules, a married man, comes to an abrupt and bitter close, and when her mother’s deteriorating health requires her immediate attention, she seizes the opportunity to visit Canada – a necessity but also an excuse to escape the oppressive weight of Jules’ betrayal and her own disappointment. Reluctant to return to Europe after her mother’s death, Grace “realize[s] she want[s] to stay” in Canada (p. 14) but not in her childhood home. Thus, the novella opens with Grace moving the remnants of her European life into a small cabin along the coastal region of Vancouver Island.
It was a property that “[p]eople ha[d] been asking [the previous owner] to sell for years” (p. 17), and by some stroke of luck, Grace secures the property before it can even be listed – the simplicity of it and its lifestyle enticing her. As a painter by trade, she is enamoured by “[t]he big window [that] look[s] west, divided into nine panes, each one showing a different view of the trees and the ocean” (p. 10). The wrens sing in the salal outside her home, and beyond the cabin, “water tumble[s] off a sandstone ledge into a pool on the beach itself” (p. 16). Peaceful. Tranquil. Remote. Among these elements, she finds an old notebook hidden inside of a window seat with its pages filled with musical notations and pencil drawings of the resident wrens. Its owner? Thomas Winston, “who [previously] owned the cabin and who’d been moved to an old folks’ home in Sooke” (p. 30). Perhaps in hopes of preserving the sentimentality of its knowledge, Grace reunites notebook and owner, forming a companionable friendship with the man who has received no visitors since his placement in the care facility. It is through this friendship and her appointed task to “[b]ring [him] the view at dusk” (p. 62) that she confronts her past, finds new love with a local potter, and is cleansed by the natural environment and her creative expression.
As a worldly traveller, who was born and currently resides in Canada, Theresa Kishkan offers an interesting blend of historical and architectural Europe in juxtaposition to the rural and coastal depictions of Vancouver Island in her novella, Winter Wren. Stylistically, Kishkan has opted to use, what I assume is Tom’s drawing of a winter wren as a section break between scenes, and to emphasise the importance of nonconformity both personally and within writing, traditional dialogue markers are not used, creating a seamless flow between conversation, exposition, and description. While the novella predominantly focuses on Grace’s narrative as she rediscovers and reclaims her place in the world as a painter, it is also interspersed with the intellectual yet emotional musings of Tom Winston, whose experiences as the son of an artefact collector, as a war veteran, and as a collector of birds (in his own right) have haunted him. Through these intermingled narratives, the reader is exposed to the challenges of aging, emotional trauma, and problematic ethnography as well as the many ways in which the characters are able to heal from these experiences. It is through art, music, and nature that both Grace and Tom are able to reconcile their pasts, and through pictorial section breaks, the inclusion of Melchior Lorck’s artwork and Robinson Jeffers’ poems, and references to Bach’s compositions and Bernard Leach’s pottery, Kishkan immerses the reader in this process as well.
Frances Boyle, Tower (2018):
Moving to a small, remote island off the coast of British Columbia in the late 60s/early 70s, Arlys Whalen and some of her closest friends arrive on Perez Island with “plans for communal living and subsistence farming” (p. 20). While many people come and go over the following years, Arlys and her partner, Chris, inevitably find themselves to be the only ones remaining, and when her body made of “good peasant stock…to have babies” (p. 16) continually betrays her and when Chris leaves her, too, Arlys finds herself to be truly alone and as an outsider among the island’s close-knit community. Despite this solitary lifestyle, she has “learned to fill the emptiness and longing with [her] work; the garden by day, and the cutting and piecing and stitching [of quilts] by night” (p. 17), offering her some semblance of peace and purpose. However, that solitude is irrevocably interrupted when the ill-mannered Bill and his heavily pregnant girlfriend, Emma, move into the old McKellar place down the street.
What should have become a lasting, neighbourly friendship becomes a devastating situation in which Arlys’ beloved baby quilt is stolen from her home – Emma being the only and likely culprit. When confronted, Emma vehemently denies the allegations, but her trips to Arlys’ farmhouse become few and far between thereafter. Willing to overlook the issue and to believe that she has simply misplaced the quilt, Arlys is shocked when she discovers Bill standing in her yard in the middle of the night with his arms filled with escarole, zucchini, and other greens. From her garden. Deaf to his claims that Emma “won’t eat anything except this shit” (p. 28), Arlys wonders why he couldn’t have simply asked for the vegetables rather than resort to stealing and declares that “what goes around comes around” (p. 28). Perhaps believing that karmic retribution would come in the form of a police investigation, Bill, scared, offers to repay Arlys to which she responds that he can take anything and everything, but she catches herself before she can make a terrible joke – that he can take all her vegetables in exchange for their unborn child. After two weeks with no apology let alone seeing either of the dynamic duo, Arlys wakes to the sound of RCMP searching for Bill and Emma, who have been illegally growing marijuana, and she makes a grisly discovery. In the cabbage patch outside her bedroom window, she finds a baby wrapped in her stolen quilt.
Published in literary magazines across North America and as an award winner of the Diana Brebner Prize and various other literary awards, Frances Boyle has captured readers in this mesmerizing modern retelling of the classic fairy tale, Rapunzel, and by subverting the conventional and static fairy tale narrative, Boyle encourages readers to acknowledge that these characters are human and inherently flawed. Set in the late twentieth century on the British Columbian west coast, Tower follows the compelling narratives of Arlys, Chicory, and Torque as they navigate the challenges of motherhood, coming of age, identity, and love, and the novella explores their duality and propensity for change by focusing on the perspectives of the morally grey ‘enchantress’, the rebellious ‘princess’, and the problematic ‘prince charming’.
While designated the ‘evil enchantress’ by conventional standards, Arlys, for instance, both conforms to and negates the stereotypes surrounding this role. In comparison to the original tale, Arlys does not demand their chid in exchange for the quilt and vegetables Bill and Emma have stolen, and when she does find their baby outside her window, she “follow[s] all the procedures, fill[s] out all the forms, and talk[s] to a department’s worth of social workers” (p. 31) to legalise and legitimatise the adoption. As the story progresses, however, Arlys’ obsessive and oppressive methods of childrearing are exposed, spurred by fears of losing her daughter to Emma, the world, and even death, and while the reader can sympathise with Arlys’ motivations to protect her daughter and to ensure her future success, her methods border on being unhealthy. Naturally, Chicory, Arlys’ adopted daughter, fervently fights against her mother’s oppressive methods, doing everything within her power to reclaim her life and proclaim her freedom from her oppressive childhood. Confined to the rural farm on Perez Island and, later, the monotonous life of an “indentured servant” to “flowers and fancy fish” (p. 109) in a posh, tower-like penthouse in Victoria, Chicory finds ways to hurt Arlys with her words and actions – all little forms of rebellion to maintain her autonomy – and her budding relationship with Torque, a troubled man with a criminal past, is the catalyst she needs to further establish that autonomy on her own, without external influence.
This subversion of the ‘evil’ enchantress, the ‘innocent’ princess, and the ‘admirable’ prince is skilfully depicted throughout the novella, and in the end, the reader must navigate these turbulent relationships to determine if Arlys and Chicory can reconcile their fracturing relationship and whether the rebellious princess and the problematic prince charming can obtain their happily ever after.
Barbara Lambert, Wanda (2021):
Living on a farm in Penticton, British Columbia, Eva Kohler, an inquisitive girl of five or six, “spends so much time talking to herself in her head” (p. 71) that she has almost forgotten what it’s like to have a friend. That is, until a “squat little figure com[es] up the driveway … stomping straight towards [her]” (p. 14). With her short, helmet-like hairstyle and her common red nails, the girl of almost eight sticks out her hand in greeting and assertively declares in a thick, English accent, “I’m Wanda” (p. 14). Intrigued by Wanda’s knowledge of ‘heart’ doctors and societal (im)propriety, Eva forms a tentative friendship with the strange girl, whose lived experiences indicate that she is more mature than her age suggests, and bonding over Wanda’s stories and their adventures around the Kohler farm, they solemnly declare to become blood sisters, pricking their fingers with flint and reciting the rote, “Friends frevver, partin’ never” (p. 57). However, one of Eva’s many secrets could jeopardize their friendship. Fleeing from the atrocities of the London Blitz, Wanda and her mother arrive in Canada seeking refuge, and surrounded by the prejudices of war, Eva and her family have been labeled ‘enemy aliens’. German. Other.
Set in a small town in the Okanagan Valley, Wanda follows the Kohler family as they confront the challenges and prejudices that come with being German and an ‘enemy alien’ during the height of World War II, and it is through the myopic and naïve perspective of Eva that the reader is able to delve into the complex narratives surrounding secrets, guilty innocence, and colonial/ethnocentric oppression. Most glaring, however, is Barbara Lambert’s depiction of prejudice, which stems from peoples’ fear, terror, and desperate need to villainize anyone with ancestral connections to Germany, Italy, and Japan.
In many ways, the German residents of Penticton as well as Eva’s parents, Christoph and Annabel Kohler, are vilified and subjected to society’s panoptic gaze – weighed down by its continual scrutiny and surveillance:
Some people … had been nervous about a group of young Germans pooling together to get money from the bank to buy orchard land and build a bunkhouse, but … eventually the rest of the town people got used to them … and started to think of them as ordinary citizens (p. 22).
However, with the advent of the Second World War, those civilized perceptions quickly shifted towards unease and suspicion. For instance, the Kohlers and their German friends would find police “parked down at the bottom of the orchard” (p. 15), and because they lived in such a small town, “the police knew exactly where the Enemy Aliens lived … [and] could come bursting in to search their houses” (p. 15). During this time, supposed family friends also became distrustful of their neighbours’ German ancestries, which is evidenced in Mrs. Carmichael’s rumours that Christoph “is a spy, that she’s seen lights flashing [from the Kohler house] to other spies in the hills across the lake” (p. 51). Of course, the continual propaganda of the demonized Other and the propagated narrative that there are “German enemies in our bosom” (p. 86) perpetuate this necessitated fear mongering to control Canada’s ‘citizens’ and ‘aliens’.
Barbara Lambert’s novella, Wanda, uncomfortably discusses the small-mindedness of people driven by fear and prejudice, and with her own roots in the Okanagan, Lambert expertly engages readers in the many issues that arose and continue to arise in a war-torn world.
Born and raised in Kamloops, Miranda Marini teaches at Thompson Rivers University in the English and Modern Languages Department, where she pursues her interests in British Columbian and Canadian Literature. Academically, her interests include ethnobotanical relationships and interactions between human and non-human environments, particularly in relation to the representations of place, space, and landscapes in British Columbia and Canada. When she isn’t busy teaching, she can usually be found working on various poems, short stories, essays, and novels – all forthcoming — in addition to spending time with her three dogs: Walle, Levi, and Marley. Editor’s note: Miranda Marini has also reviewed books by Martha Ostenso, Roz Nay, and Winona Kent for The Ormsby Review.
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