BOOK REVIEW: A mind-bending collection of stories about transformation and adaptation, full of startling ideas, capricious characters and uncanny goings-on.
Readers can only take so much of happy lives and promised lands in fiction. We are a cruel bunch who revel in Schadenfreude: Characters must suffer to be believable, their hopes and loves challenged and hard-won. Kathy Page, a British-born but now Canada-based writer, knows this, and has delighted readers with strange, unsettling novels where outsiders struggle to get their bearings in hostile environments.
“Paradise & Elsewhere” (Biblioasis, 160 pages, $15.95) sees Page doing what she does best, but in miniature. Her second collection of short stories, 14 in all, gravitates more toward “elsewhere,” the far side of paradise. In her author’s note, Page describes her tales as being an exploration into “the hinterland between realism and myth,” her worlds’ alternative realities “in which readers can both lose and find themselves.” Even if we end up more lost than found, it all makes for a singular reading experience.
Many stories take travelers to off-the-beaten-track locations. In “The Ancient Siddannese,” a guide shows tourists around the ruins of Sidda, a city built by the blind. In “G’Ming” and “Lak-ha,” Page impresses with her treatment of landscape and language, constructing the former while dismantling the latter. And in “Of Paradise” and “Saving Grace,” new arrivals to remote towns risk losing everything they possess.
Other stories come across as tall tales, extravagantly outlandish, such as “Low Tide,” where a female sea creature emerges from the water, sloughs off her sleek skin and goes to live in a lighthouse with a man who claims to be her husband. We learn to suspend disbelief and simply go with Page’s flow. Along with these tales of the unexplained are several tales of the unexpected: “We, the Trees,” “Lambing” and “I Like to Look” beguile us with their oddities, then knock us sideways with their endings.
The deeper we immerse ourselves in Page’s fantasies, the more disoriented we become. On the few occasions that she allows us secure footing by switching to conventional characters doing conventional things, we appreciate the purchase but soon yearn to fall back down the rabbit hole to be flummoxed all over again by otter-like women, sisters with Medusa stares and twins called Right and Left. Some stories conjure up a magic that makes us think of past fabulists such as Angela Carter and Italo Calvino. Those stories that restructure language and subvert accepted norms are reminiscent of present practitioners like Ben Marcus. Indeed, Page’s story “The Kissing Disease,” about a deadly kissing virus, comes from a similar mold as Marcus’ “The Flame Alphabet,” a novel in which children’s speech is toxic.
“Language stretches between us,” Page tells us at one point, “a new country, vast, intricate, ours.” In another story we hear that windowpanes have been “faulted so that the whole world can seem drunken-strange.” “Paradise & Elsewhere” is composed of such elastic language and distorted reflections, each story boldly illuminating as it playfully confounds.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.