‘How You Were Born’ by Kate Cayley

How You Were Born coverReviewed by Brock Peters

Kate Cayley’s How You Were Born begins with a family coping with a death and ends with the same family, years before, preparing for a birth. Thematically this arc underpins the entire collection, as characters struggle with aging and loss as well as with the disappointment that emerges when life doesn’t work out quite how they’d hoped. The eleven stories in this collection are taut and poignant, and collectively represent a strong debut in adult fiction for Cayley. She has previously worked prolifically as a playwright, while also finding time to publish a young adult novel (The Hangman in the Mirror, 2011) and a collection of poetry (When This World Comes to an End, 2013). This book was a finalist for the 2015 Governor General’s Award, and won the 2015 Trillium Book Award.

“Resemblance” is a curious choice for the first story, but turns out to be representative of the collection as a whole. Molly and Robin are taking their ten-year-old daughter Emma to visit her biological grandmother in the wake of a complex family tragedy: Jake, a close friend of the couple who served as their sperm donor, has died of an aneurism at forty. The story begins on the highway, with a literal sense of momentum; soon, however, it fragments into a series of different perspectives and memories, as each character copes with their loss and with this new, uncomfortable, but ultimately hopeful situation. A slow start, then, but one that’s rich with poignancy of an almost universal nature. Jake’s mother “imagines herself moving unknowing” as her son dies far away, evoking a visceral feeling of loneliness even as her surrogate family speeds towards her intent on creating a relationship upon the foundation of their loss.

Memory and regression are at the core of many stories in the collection: an aging ex-academic finds himself “out of date” compared to his ambitious and young sixth wife; three siblings are compelled to put their 90-year-old father into a care home, but the eldest is concerned that such confinement is causing him to relive his imprisonment in Buchenwald under the Nazis; a young researcher interviews a “remarkably old” woman while working to preserve American folk history, only to find that she, like many others, has internalized and subsequently recounts the very same “tall tales.” Age, too, seems to be a central concern, as the stories often seem to deal either with the growth of the young or the decay of the old.

These stories are realist, technically tight, and written in a taut, precise style. And while it seems like poor old Raymond Carver—or David Bergen, here on the Prairies—finds himself invoked every time the phrase “spare prose” is uttered, he’s certainly a forebear, whether consciously or otherwise, of the style of writing Cayley deploys here. This perhaps leads to my primary quibble with the collection as a whole. These stories are often told in spurts, sprinkled with memories and observations and recollections, and their sparse, realist style foregrounds what often feels like a missing degree of narrative arc. And while it would be impossible to argue that short fiction requires a traditional linear narrative—one need look no further than Borges to refute such an idea—in Cayley’s case the form of the narrative feels just slightly out of sync with the style of the prose.

Cayley is at her strongest when she weaves elements of uncertainty and mystery into her stories. In “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis,” two young siblings spy on their neighbours, a pair of elderly men who keep their windows covered with newspaper and the nature of whose relationship remains mysterious to the very end. “Blind Poet” features a young woman afflicted with macular degeneration who has an intense and perplexing relationship with an unpredictable artist named Marianne. This is perhaps the strongest story in the collection, weaving Cayley’s astute command of mood, utilized here to make the story feel almost claustrophobic, with a modern-day mythological awareness. The narrator observes that when “a stranger arrives, pounds on your door, or shows up at the foot of the bed[,] you ask them in, even if they are soaked with rain, battered by wind, and dangerous, even if they are worse than dangerous.” It’s a story that leaves the reader wishing we could follow the characters even after it ends, as they leave the apartment in which their relationship was confined, to see what transpires as they part ways.

The explicit echo between the first and the last story adds an element of continuity to the collection that is lamentably absent in far too many short story collections; though the complex similarity of themes in Cayley’s stories would perhaps have sufficed to lend the book cohesion, the decision to provide a concrete bookend on either side, and what’s more, to set the last story chronologically earlier than the first, makes this work feel like a complete entity. It highlights the collection’s regressive themes, as the readers end up further back than when they started. Personal inclination will determine whether or not this is a satisfying denouement.

And in a book full of dysfunctional relationships, many of them similarly regressive (particularly among the parental figures, who are often seen withdrawing from their family responsibilities in favour of vague aspirations to personal fulfilment), we are left feeling hopeful by this Robin/Molly/Emma recurrence. Despite the discouragement through which we have been guided, as we watch characters struggle with desperate situations, we can be anchored throughout by this single family struggling towards rather than away from a loving, meaningful union.


Pedlar | 180 pages | $22.00 | paper | ISBN# 978-1897141656

Be Sociable, Share!
MORE >

Articles

  • Winter Light

    By Barbara Romanik

    I pass the Winnipeg Clinic building at the corner of St. Mary and Vaughan every couple of days, but rarely glance at it. MORE >

Interviews

New Work

  • Efren’s Place

    By Trevor Corkum

    It took Efren forever to open the door. He had to flip through a fat ring of keys, fit each silver key into the flimsy lock, and then wriggle it back and forth before pulling the shit key out and starting over. MORE >

Excerpts

  • Excerpt from 'All Inclusive'

    By Farzana Doctor

    Canadian Ameera Gilbert took a job at Atlantis, an all-inclusive resort in Huatulco, Mexico, still smarting from a stormy past relationship with her ex-lover Gavin. As this chapter of Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive begins, Ameera is enjoying a night out at the resort lounge, trying to forget about the email she had received from her boss Anita—in which an anonymous complainant has accused her of behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner with the resort’s clientele.

    ***

    MORE >

Book Reviews

  • ‘God in Pink’ by Hasan Namir

    God in PinkReviewed by Harriet Zaidman

    Gay and transgender people have made enormous advances in human rights in recent years. MORE >

  • ‘The Afterlife of Birds’ by Elizabeth Philips

    The Afterlife of BirdsReviewed by Lynne C. Martin

    Losing a parent as a child can cause all sorts of unique long-lasting consequences, many of which are seldom recognized as grief. About a third of the way through Elizabeth Philips’s lovely first novel The Afterlife of Birds, we discover that the protagonist, Henry, and his brother, Dan, lost their dad as young boys—and suddenly the idiosyncrasies of these two young men make sense. MORE >

  • ‘The Winter Family’ by Clifford Jackman

    The Winter FamilyReviewed by Will J. Fawley

    Some works of historical fiction bring the past to life and enable us to better understand the lives of those who came before; others merely recount events. The best historical fiction offers up something that neither the past nor present could provide on their own: a synthesis of historical knowledge, and a modern perspective on the ramifications of the events that transpired from that point in time until now. MORE >

  • ‘The Swallows Uncaged’ by Elizabeth McLean

    The Swallows UncagedReviewed by Charlene Van Buekenhout

    Before opening The Swallows Uncaged, I didn’t know very much about Vietnam, let alone its history. I now have, in this novel, an extensive resource on the daily lives of Vietnamese people from early centuries through to modern times. MORE >

  • ‘Book of Sands’ by Karim Alrawi

    Book of SandsReviewed by Tim Runtz

    Karim Alrawi’s debut novel begins in an unnamed city, presumably Cairo, during the height of the Arab Spring. MORE >