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Steffler, John.

Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, c1985. 174pp, paper, $9.95, ISBN 0-7710-8242-8. CIP

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Pamela Black

Volume 13 Number 5
1985 September

This time honoured theme of the individual's quest for self-knowledge surely holds one of the highest positions in western literature. The Grey Islands, John Steffler's second collection, is a series of poetic and prose sketches that provide a modem offering to this hallowed genre.

Our narrator is a man who is "dying, bit by bit," as a town planner in Milliken Harbour, Newfoundland. His dreams have failed him. He describes his wife and himself on one of their few precious holidays as "ghosts looking for something we've lost." So he goes to a land of broken dreams and ghosts, the deserted Grey Islands, hoping to understand by dwelling with the "shades" the nature of his own withdrawal from reality.

Steffler constructs an interesting dialectic between the unseen and the seen: "my only company here: absent people, gaps . . . questions, vanished things, are solid facts." Yet later we are told:
"it's enough to record
what's obvious . . . but always this is what's
hardest to see." Somewhere in this dynamic is the key to himself. The spirit of the passages grows progressively lighter, and we feel that Steffler's persona has found some part of what he was looking for, but as this work draws to a close, the reader is curiously in the dark as to what this actually might be.

A great deal of our protagonist's experiences on his island are alienating. He is uncomfortable; he is frightened; he is frequently inept. The anecdotes that are related in the voices of the locals are very amusing but also reveal the hardships that these people take for granted; no one seems surprised that there are no happy endings. The reader, drawn into this portrayal of an indifferent universe, is not provided with a view of the growth process that apparently results from the narrator's exposure to these negative factors. We are told: "day by day a power coming out of the rock." But we do not see or feel the power nor do we understand what has been resolved by the discovery of its presence.

The Grey Islands is interesting and entertaining in a very softspoken way. Like the characters it describes, however, this book falls short of its promise. It avoids important questions, and ultimately, does not go far enough towards articulating the shadowy spaces that need definition if an endeavour such as this is to be successful. Like our man on the island, The Grey Islands emerges with strength, but not victorious.

Pamela Black, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C.
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