1755 God on the dock

Uncertain Kin
by Janice Lynn Mather

Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (Doubleday Canada), 2022
$29.95 / 9780385697156

Reviewed by Alison Acheson


A dusty rooster and a badly tuned radio woke Priscilla just before six.

It’s perfect detail that draws you in to Janice Lynn Mather’s world. Once there (with one exception, a story of emigration), you’re in the Bahamas, with “a glorious whirl of nutmeg and fabric the colour of plums…” The colour yellow permeates these pages, too, in all its shades. Followed by red. Vividness in the writing makes me believe that if I were magically whisked there in my sleep, I’d awake knowing exactly where I was.

But right now, I live in a place where windows are closed, rain falls and wind blows, and I have no idea what’s going on in the house right next to me. No sounds of voices and human expression come to my ears in the part of the world where I live. In these stories, though, through windows and walls and open doorways there is just such connection — too much it feels like for the most part, but in the best ways. The ways readers might want. Is this not why we read? In part? I adjust, to differing degrees, to the levels of voyeurism; less for the beatings and tears and questions. And more for the laughter and talk, the mention of “after love,” and dinner aromas, too. Mather’s work is true to human behaviour and emotion; there’s no hiding away here.

This sense of what is happening on the other side of a wall or door creates an edge of mystery as to what is being done to whom. And more often than not, there is no “why.” No explanations or misleading explanations for the characters who are often children or young adults. In one story, an adolescent girl is sent out to purchase milk due to a fridge breakdown — when in fact the fridge has been unplugged. This, so the mother can have time for a guest.

Tsawwassen writer Janice Lynn Mather. Photo by Janice M. Mather

There’s palpable division between the child-world and the adult in many of these stories, and now and then a crossing or rupture or slippage from one to another. Sometimes this slippage is between masks: in the opening story, “Centipede,” a neighbour of the main character’s — a child — comes to school to share traditional stories — and the woman surely shows a different face in the classroom from the face she shows in her own home and yard. From the child’s perspective, this is chilling business, along with the sense of no one being in control to care or monitor. (This sense pervades the collection, to differing degrees. Even if someone is in control, so often for the young characters, there’s a sense of lack of stability.) All the false faces of adults — and there are many. What stood out in this story is its close, and the sudden connection; I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. It resonates.

“Morning Swim” is sensuous and rich and sad and female. Throughout the collection, the stories are evocations of what it is to be female, young and old and in between. (Though, I find both the young and old the most evocative in these stories.) This story is of a diagnosis, with more than denial. Always a questioning of the easy go-to words like “denial.” But what is it to live with a terrifying diagnosis in an individual way, and let an answer come to you? The innocuous opening line, “The morning walks had not worked,” takes on an ominous quality when the main character goes for a swim instead.

Opening lines can be both deceptively simple and powerful throughout, for example: “Priscilla stepped off the mailboat and looked around to see if God was on the dock.” “It was a fruitful summer. People tend to forget that.” “My mother’s friends are elegant birds, each with her own muted plumage.” The promise and voice of such openers hold.

And always a touch of magic close by. Throughout the collection, magical tidbits do not pull attention to themselves but simply are, and leave the reader with some wonder: is the baby in “Morning Swim” a baby? Or a wee angel? And in the story “The Water,” is it water? Or is it blood? The shouting preacher of “The Water” is loud, but the blood washes and turns throughout. Sounds of old-time hymns also wash through these pages: incantation.

Sometimes the magic shows its full face, and just pops:

Once upon a time, was an old, old time, monkey chew tobacco and he spit white lime. Bullfrog jump from bank to bank, while mosquito keep the time. Wasn’t my time, wasn’t your time. It was old, old time.

All stories are told with a female point-of-view. Some with a lingering threat of maleness: “Don’t you worry.” His voice floated up through the leaves and hung there beside her like past-ripe fruit. “I see you ain’t ready yet. Next time, baby. See you next time. Real soon.”

But there is also the sense of betrayal — a different type of betrayal — when the women in one’s life, women who should be trustworthy, prove not to be. Suspicion is just around the corner — if not out in plain view. Adults can resent children and resent their passage to become adults, too: “…if such things were possible, Mrs. Thompson would have sworn, that year Debbie was in her class, she could hear the girl bursting into puberty.”

This is a deep burrowing of the connections between young women and girls with old teachers, grandmothers, mothers, aunts, neighbour women, friends of all ages.

My favourite — because there’s always one that holds me to a second read before moving on — is “Bread,” a story with a mother who takes unexpected steps:

The bread rose from a low, silent lump into a lighthearted dough that could not be discouraged, that expanded, puffed up, spread its aroma into our home and beyond, under the door and through the corridors of the fifth floor, blessing the air with cinnamon and the low, almost-human scent of yeast.

The story is all about the “beyond” in the bread, beyond the door of the family home, beyond the balcony, out onto the street. Again, the final paragraph, the closing words, resonate. Each of these stories is crafted from heart and gut, from knowledge of craft, and that piece beyond — the piece that causes us to think writers are born as writers.

Janice Lynn Mather

Uncertain Kin is Mather’s first published collection for adults, and carries the same richness that infuses her young adult novels. Evoking a child’s voice as a child’s voice is not easy; those who write only for an adult audience often fall into a retrospective voice with young characters. Or worse, nostalgic. Mather’s child characters are each unique. One even seems cold in her observations about other children disappearing … until the reader realizes that this form of “permanence” is not in this child’s — or any child’s — experience. These are authentic realities and observations. It is artists’ work to attempt to make some sense of what we are all doing here, to reveal to us the layers of our existence. Mather’s humanity informs all her work. These stories left me in a place of taking a break after each — oh, the joy of short fiction! — to absorb and ponder before the next.

Collections of short fiction are best with a mix of length and substance, character and situation — a thought-filled dish of delectables, with a blend of rhythms, of language, of intensity. And something like this: “An old sensation, like discovering a chewed-up toy in a far corner of a closet, nestled next to an abandoned cockroach husk.” The kinship in juxtaposition, of place and people, of reader and page, is here, with certainty.



Alison Acheson. Photo by Rex Logan

Alison Acheson is the author of almost a dozen books for all ages, with the most recent being a memoir of caregiving: Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days with ALS (TouchWood, 2019). She writes a newsletter on Substack, The Unschool for Writers, and lives on the East Side of Vancouver. Editor’s note: Alison Acheson has also reviewed books by Jacqueline Firkins, Barbara Nickel, and Caroline Adderson for The British Columbia Review, and Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days with ALS was reviewed by Lee Reid.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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