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Shaw, Joan Fern.

Ottawa, Oberon Press, c1985. 155pp, paper, ISBN 0-88750-565-1 (cloth) $23.95,0-88750-567-8 (paper) $12.95.

Grades 12 and up
Reviewed by Ruth Cosstick

Volume 13 Number 6
1985 November

This is a very disturbing book. Raspberry Vinegar is a collection of stories, many of which have been published separately in various literary magazines. The narrator is the daughter of an Air Force officer, who, with his wife, appears to devote himself solely to drink. This makes for a very chaotic life for their only child. In spite of this, she appears to be a survivor until the final episode, a very black one indeed. As she matures, the unnamed protagonist comes to realize that every day of life has a little story in it somewhere. This thought, she says, brings her comfort and a feeling of immortality. These moments of peace and introspection are achieved by quiet meditation in her grandmother's garden. Summers spent on the farm in Bruce County, Ontario, provide a stabilizing influence amidst the worsening violence induced by transient alcoholic parents.

The title of the book comes from a favourite home-made beverage described as "sort of sweet and sour at the exact same time. Like life." To the little girl the liquid appears crimson and alive, like a ruby, but when she tastes it for the first time her mouth ties up in a knot. In vivid prose the sensation is described: ".. .darts of pain flew up my neck and quivered behind my ears. My tongue alternately shrivelled and expanded." The stories are comprised of the same bitter-sweet mixture, but the nostalgic youthful memories are completely overpowered by the barbs of pain that sharply intrude into each recollection. The grotesque and macabre predominate, in shocking contrast to the philosophy of gentle acceptance engendered in the asparagus patch. On the whole the vinegar flavour takes over from the raspberry, which is a pity, since the sweetness in this collection has much to offer. Teacher discretion cautioned.

Ruth Cosstick, Ottawa, Ont.
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