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Joan Givner
Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1991. 114pp, paper, ISBN 0-88750-859-6 (paper) $12.95, ISBN 0-88750-858-8 (cloth) $25.95. CIP

Grades 11 and up/Ages 16 and up

Reviewed by Barbara Camfield.

Volume 20 Number 2
1992 March

Joan Givner, a Saskatchewan writer, has been known primarily for her biographies of (Catherine Anne Porter and Mazo de la Roche. This is the first collection of short stories she has published since her 1985 collection entitled Tentacles of Unreason (University of Illinois, 1985). Although she has spent most of her adult life on the Canadian prairies, Givner was brought up in a village in northern England. Two of the stories in this collection revolve around the relationship between the biographer and the subject of his/ her study, and other stories suggest English village social hierarchies and life expectations that Canadians associate more readily with England than with their own country.

"Portrait of a Lady" and "Short Story with Footnotes" both begin with the particular circumstances in which a biographer may find himself or herself. In the first story the biographer-narrator finds himself unable to see clearly the other people who surround his main subject except in relation to it. In the second story, the biographer, Libby, has to take a holiday to divorce herself from the principal character of her major biography. So imbued is she with the spirit of this person that she finds herself even dressing like her. These two stories, which both use the same central character, Libby, suggest that fiction is more truthful than biography, since the whole story of life cannot be told. Yet fiction can choose strangeness and present it in an attractive, safe manner. The two stories which are built around this premise seem contrived and somewhat academic. Their characters are pieces in the biographer's puzzle, and when one of them actually begins a homosexual relationship, the offended biographer has to break off the acquaint­ance since reality is far too improper to be acceptable.

Givner is mainly interested in writing about women: how they interrelate, grow from childhood to adulthood, and engage in loving relationships which do not necessarily involve men. In "Saskatoon Letters" the narrator tells a story of jilting. An older wealthy woman is jilted by a younger protegee, who chooses to leave England for Canada to marry rather than remain in safer, more conventional circum­stances. The early friendship of the two women is described as a more harmoni­ous partnership than many real mar­riages. However, Gillian, who experi­ences divorce and loneliness in Canada, works hard to make herself a success as a writer of local histories. The narrator clearly approves of her independence, describing her as "self-sufficient and impressive."

Complete dependence in any relationship is dangerous. The broken homosexual relationship in "Scenes from Provincial Life" leaves Chris extremely lonely. He feels that he cannot trust himself to maintain the distant relationship he has with the child who comes to his house daily to practice the piano. The exaggerated protective ness of the mother for her two adopted children in "Evergreen" arouses such frenzy of anxiety in her that she commits murder when she believes her children are in danger.

Among the six stories in this collec­tion 1 found that the first two, "Scenes from Provincial Live" and "The Saskatoon Letters," were the most successful, because the author's purpose was not so immediately apparent as in "Portrait of a Lady" and "Short Story with Footnotes." The characters are allowed to assume a lifelike quality without being just parts of the writer's literary puzzle. Recommended chiefly for strong Canadiana collections.

Barbara Camfield, National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ont.
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