‘The Two of Us’ by Kathy Page
British-Canadian author Kathy Page’s career has spanned thirty-plus years, and in that period she’s written seven novels, many short- or longlisted for various writing prizes (the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the ReLit award). It’s interesting that at this point in her career, her last two books have been short story collections: the well-received Paradise & Elsewhere, and now The Two of Us, both of which have been longlisted for the Giller.
Let’s begin where The Two of Us does: “The House On Manor Close,” the lead story of Page’s latest collection, is a quiet stunner. There are no twists in the story, but I’m going to give away the narrative blueprint, and really, it’s best going in blind. So, for any reader interested in modern short stories, let me just say: read “The House On Manor Close.” Okay, fair warning.
A portrait of a family, “House” is told in three sections, each narrated by one of the family’s three children. The story gracefully glides across decades of its family’s lives, shifting the reader’s perceptions of its precisely drawn, yet continually evolving, characters. The small, detailed incidents Page relates seem perfectly emblematic of the family’s minor struggles and complex interrelationships. What emerges feels like a complete emotional history of its subject family. If it didn’t sound patronizing, I would describe the story’s sweep and scope as “novelistic,” but never mind, anyway—few novels manage the portrayal of a family with the same exquisite complexity of “House,” and “House” does it in a mere 24 pages.
Page’s control over the narrative flow of “House” is especially impressive. The narrative strategies each section employs vary—the first two sections, narrated by the middle and youngest children, trade between specific childhood incidents and more general recountings of family routines, while the last section, narrated by the eldest child, brings the narrative into the present, and mostly focuses on particular incidents. But the three disparate parts improbably combine to make a decidedly definite whole, and ends on a perfectly strange and fittingly ambiguous note. I have to assume that “House” is being taught in a short-fiction classroom right now, and if not, it certainly should be; so exemplary it is of the modern short story’s strengths and preoccupations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the collection cannot offer another story that comes near reaching the heights and impact of “House.” Where this story’s sprawling timeline encompasses several decades (effortlessly, with fleetness), the majority of The Two of Us’s stories take place over the course of a day, sometimes hours. While Page still brings her characters quickly, almost ruthlessly, to the heart of their emotional quandaries, “House”’s diamond precision, in choice of scene and drawing of its characters, is unmatched. Given its ambition and near-perfection, it’s impossible to not consider the rest of the book’s stories to be lesser works in comparison.
Strangely, “House” is at thematic odds from the rest of the collection, as well, from the book’s title on: the jacket copy reads “[t]he stories in The Two of Us focus on pairs, couples, dyads,” which is true of all but “House,” whose focus is a family, and all its relationships in every permutation.
I can’t help but wonder how the effect of “The House On Manor Close” on the rest of the collection would have differed had the story closed The Two of Us rather than opened it. The feeling would have been of an expanse widening before the reader at the collection’s close, instead of providing a continual reminder of each successive story’s inferiority. It may be odd to argue that the chosen sequencing of a short-story collection seriously hampers the enjoyment of the collection in toto, but here we are.
Ah, but I’m being overly negative! Of course there are standouts among the collection’s other stories: The Two of Us’s three shorter works (“Sweet Agony,” “Johanna” and “Daddy”), a handful of pages each, are uniformly successful, more concerned with tone than narrative, each establishing a distinct mood before closing. “The Perfect Day” recounts a day trip to a tourist attraction a woman takes with her elderly parents, and presents yet further evidence of Page’s facility with family dynamics. The writing is strong throughout—functional and spare, without calling attention to its spareness, and occasionally allowing itself a moment of eloquence, such as when Page describes a swimming pool’s “turquoise glow, with those threads of reflected light knitting and releasing themselves in a dance that is both loose and contained.”
So, a caveated recommendation, but a recommendation nonetheless. A writer that can turn out a story of the quality of “The House On Manor Close” is certainly one worth watching in the future; I know I will be.
Biblioasis | 224 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1771960991