Book Review for The Vancouver Sun
When they’re able to escape the Short Story Universe, Lambert’s tales come alive
by Kiera Miller
In Japanese, the word wabi can be used to describe the beauty of things imperfect, incomplete, modest, normal and unconventional. The characters in Shaena Lambert’s debut collection, The Falling woman, are all of these things. Their flaws and inconsistencies reveal Lambert’s gifts of insight and compassion.
It’s disappointing when we find these perfectly imperfect characters cocooned in hyper-meticulous language and moments that don’t always seem to suit them, thus dragging down the stories’ very interesting momentum.
This is a romantic collection. Characters in The Falling Woman feel the density of their surroundings: Lake Ontario, buildings, houses. Threads in clothing gleams, beams of light reflect and flicker, eyelids are as thin as moths’ wings. There are lots of veins and slivers.
Unfortunately, the romanticism often ends up sanitizing the emotional tension. We become aware that we are caught in Short Story Universe – a familiar place where people suddenly answer questions that were asked days earlier and no one seems to think it strange or annoying, where characters transfer their distressed emotional states into imaginings of things that don’t exist. (In “Annunciation”, a young woman’s body becomes infested with sea anemones.)
Of course we read short stories to enter a universe where we get to view human imperfections with an eye trained on the beautiful. We like the contrast, but it needs to feel organic.
In “Terracotta”, Ned, a boy with a poet’s heart, is disgusted by his older brother’s complacency around a crude friend. The friend is not necessarily a bad kid; he’s simply acting and talking like what he is, a teenage boy.
Ned ends up getting drunk and behaving more crudely than the friend or his brother. The role shifts are intriguing, as is the brothers’ home life (an Indian mother with a cowboy boyfriend). But, several times, we lose Ned and his brother to pretty descriptions and adult perceptions that don’t serve the story. Viewing the situation more consistently from the brothers’ perspectives would have given the story the energy to make the leap from good to great.
The best selections in The Falling Woman come when we can forget the craft of the story, the language in the story, the writer of the story and simply be aware of, well, the story.
The opening story, “Resistance”, moves us through Kaye’s memory of her parents’ sometimes volatile marriage, her history as an idealistic political activist, and the day her husband confessed that he was having an affair, without making Kaye into a saint or a victim. The transitions seem effortless.
In “Sugar Bush,” Melanie, a middle-aged Toronto woman, visits a friend who is living a postcard life of domesticity in the Ottawa Valley, Melanie’s self-centered nature and the desperation this inevitably causes her are exposed through deft interior monologue,. As the women visit, we learn about Melanie’s friend’s recent confusing encounters with a complementary-medicine doctor accused of sexual harassment. We are left not knowing whether to despise or identify with Melanie, or how deep the doctor’s misogyny runs. It’s a thought-provoking story.
This is a fine debut collection. If the craft and language seem self-conscious at times, it’s easy to chalk this up to the learning process a writer must go through to emerge with an exquisitely unique voice.
There is enough in The Falling Woman that proves Lambert is a writer to watch. Certainly she has the ability to recognize the wabi, the beauty of the imperfect. She’s at her best when she allows her characters’ imperfections to be reflected in the stories’ language and tone.
The Jefferson County Port Townsend Leader