1211 Resisting the conventions
Sunday Drive to Gun Club Road
by Marion Quednau
Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2021
$21.95 / 9780889713987
Reviewed by Kathy Mezei
The short story is a quirky form; it has certain novelistic features—characters, narrators, setting, plots (necessarily curtailed) and certain poetic features—brevity, emotional shock or surprise, intensity of language, but it marches staunchly to the beat of its own offbeat drum.
In her first collection of stories, Quednau writes with verve and perspicuity, capturing the intonations and preoccupations of a spectrum of society from suburban couples to a horse trainer through a remarkable range of focalizers from inconsiderate or dissembling husbands, disparaging teenage girls to seemingly tough, independent women, sometimes speaking in the first person, other times through an omniscient narrator. In the first two stories, “Snow Man” and “Garage Sale,” Quednau focalizes through the less empathetic husbands rather than their more appealing wives, which adds an affective twist to the unfolding narrative.
In a diffident ironic style somewhat reminiscent of New Yorker stories, Quednau deftly encapsulates the personality of her minor characters in a pithy sentence: “Cam was always pruning and planting the right bulbs at the right time in properly turned soil” (p. 12); “The new mother was pretty in a beleaguered way” (p. 53). “… a Massachusetts professor type, six-foot-fourish, maybe a doctor, retired, with his pressed Dockers, a sport fisherman or yacht owner, fond of English setters and the writings of Cheever” (p. 146). Yet she also conveys the complexities and evolution of the characters who take centre stage, particularly the adolescent narrator of the two linked stories, “Sunday Drive to Gun Club Road” and “Like a Bride.” As she explained in a recent interview in the Ormsby Review:
I really like the pressure of a short story having to end; there’s an impetus right from the get-go of having to create character and voice and atmosphere in only a few telling brushstrokes and then inventing some small or large commotion requiring a shift in dynamic, a break or reforming of character.
Thus many of her stories revolve around an upheaval or commotion that not only affects, changes or marks her characters, but simultaneously creates an emotional shock in the reader. Moreover, the surprise or twist sometimes occurs mid-story, not necessarily as the classic startling ending.
This collection is an impressive medley of genres and voices, including a captivity tale, “Twine,” and a murder mystery, ”Two Birds, One Stone,” both of which, while slyly resisting the conventions of their genre, nevertheless keep the reader guessing, in suspense and surprised. Several, such as “Snow Man,” “Onion,” “Ex-Racehorse,” and “Found to Be Missing,” are anatomies of marriages or shadowy glimpses into unequal or even abusive relationships; in two, the decency of the wife prevails over the callousness of the husband, creating that “shift in dynamic” Quednau described above. In others such as “The Reading,” the tables are turned on a blasé older male writer by a young woman, again in an unexpected way. Although a wry tone and observing eye dominate, intimations of longing for love or completion or understanding nevertheless weave through this collection.
Not only is Quednau adept at replicating colloquial dialogues, she also skillfully recreates a sense of time and place, as in the title story, “Sunday Drive to Gun Club Road,” where the sixties milieu is comically captured in the descriptions of food—“my father’s old faves, creamed chicken on toast or fried liver with onions” (p. 34) — and the décor encountered by the family while touring open houses with “faux-leather couches” and “little baskets of different coloured soaps” (p. 40). But what makes reading this collection most pleasurable is the humour, at times sly, at times ribald, and at times offbeat.
Kathy Mezei is Professor Emerita, Humanities Department, SFU; Life Member, Clare Hall, Cambridge, and lives in Burnaby. She has published on Canadian literature, life-writing, Canadian women writers, translation studies, comparative Canadian and Quebec literature, domestic space, and modern British women writers. She is one of the co-founders of the feminist journal, Tessera. Her most recent publication is Living with Strangers: Bedsits and Boarding Houses in Modern English Life, Literature and Film (Bloomsbury 2018), co-edited with Chiara Briganti. Editor’s note: Kathy Mezei has also reviewed books by Carrie Jenkins, Lorna Crozier, and Rebecca Wigod for The Ormsby Review.
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