Ruins and Relics

Ruins and Relics

By Aparna Sanyal

A review of Ruins And Relics by Alice Zorn

Published on August 1, 2009

Ruins And Relics
Alice Zorn

NeWest Press
$19.95
paper
213pp
978-1-897126-38-7

Alice Zorn’s debut short story collection embodies what we have come to expect of Canadian fiction. The language is spare, exhibiting the ‘elegance’ beloved of reviewers. The main subject matter is relationships, frequently depicted from a female point of view. The landscape is appropriately diverse. It features gay, ethnic, poor, immigrant, and French-speaking characters, and – in line with Canadian cosmopolitanism – is global, with stories set in Tunisia, France, and the Czech Republic. This fiction follows all the rules. Yet it is not gripping.

It is not that the writing is boring. Zorn can be sharp, poetic, and occasionally comical. In “Plum Dumplings,” Zorn describes a Montreal woman’s first meeting with her visiting Austrian grandmother, who despises her granddaughter for being unmarried, lauds Hitler as “a man with vision,” and whose face droops “like a net from her nose and her cheekbones.” Zorn writes of her protagonist’s struggle to heave the old ogre up to her tiny walkup studio:

And then, for a second, Oma hung, the momentum of her weight as likely to tip backward as foreward. Trudi leaned into Oma’s rump and shoved with all her strength. She’d have toppled a less stubborn old woman flat onto her face. She only managed to nudge Oma those last couple of steps.

Not only is the scene funny, it effectively symbolizes the hopelessness of engaging with Oma.

But in spite of the good descriptions and interesting plots, there are frequent gaps of insight that prevent the reader from becoming deeply invested. In “The Other Canadian,” 40-year-old Sophie, a married Ontarian, treats herself to a painting course in Paris. A talented boy of 20 begins to pursue her. Though she desires him, Sophie refuses his advances. The reader is left wondering why. We never learn what Sophie feels for her husband, what she thinks about the way she’s lived her life, how she sees infidelity, or what she wants out of the trip. There are hints that Sophie is only attracted to young Miles because she is insecure about turning 40, but the reader must infer this. Sophie’s thoughts, words, and actions remain frustratingly minimalist. When Miles lures Sophie to a romantic setting, and literally flings himself at her feet, Sophie merely mumbles “I have to get back,” before flitting. It is hard to understand what he sees in her, given that her most brilliant line is “Nous sommes à Paris.

In general, Zorn waxes too broad and too shallow with her characters. Several border on stereotype: the trailer-trash heroine of “The Laird Boy,” locked into a cycle of poverty and addiction; the hypersexual artist’s model Shoba; the gay artist Ben, doomed with AIDS. The one mark of originality in this work is the seamless way the reader’s understanding of a situation is occasionally turned upside down. In “Stop Sign Princess,” footloose student Lucie begins a affair, while working in the Gaspé, with a local man who has a girlfriend. It appears that Lucie falls in love while Jonah remains noncommittal. Zorn obliges us to rely on Lucie’s point of view, enlightening us almost imperceptibly as to who holds the reins in the relationship. But this slow turn, while intellectually admirable, is not enough to satisfy the reader on an emotional level. Lucie in the Gaspé is as lifeless as Sophie in Paris, and floats passively atop the clever narrative.

These are polite, orderly, sensitive little stories that could have been written by anyone. This reader wants more from her fiction – broken rules, unique perceptions, and the glimmerings of other, more meaningful lives. mRb

Aparna Sanyal is editor of the mRb.

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