Books: Gwen Davies

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Cover mock up two Facing the Other WayFacing the Other Way  by Gwen Davies

Boularderie Island Press

ISBN: 978-1-926448-11-4

$19.95

Publication: August, 2016

In Facing the Other Way Davies portrays a cast of idealistic housemates working toward a better world. In youth, with all of the innocence and naiveté of the ‘sixties, they rescue a pregnant girl from the street and take in abandoned babies. In the disenchantment and insecurity of middle age, one faces childhood guilt while another questions her relevance as a social worker. And through it all, when it counts, they are there for each other., 2016

Gwen Davies grew up as an Air Force brat, exploring Europe in the family’s VW camper. Her stories appear in a number of literary magazines, US and Canada, and in 2013 she won The Antigonish Review’s Sheldon Currie Fiction Award. She teaches writing, and has run the Community of Writers retreat in Tatamagouche, NS, for fifteen years. In her sixties she took up parkour—learning to get past obstacles in the landscape and the mind—which put her on the front cover of Halifax Magazine. She lives and walks a lot in downtown Halifax.

 

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Review of Facing the Other Way in The Fiddlehead, Spring 2018

A Past We Can Remember, If We Were There

Facing the Other Way, Gwen Davies. Boularderie Island Press, 2016.

I first read this book while on a book prize jury, and while I put it on my short list, I knew with a sinking certainty, that it probably could not win, or even become a finalist, and probably for one reason alone, that it is a collection of short stories. Despite the Nobel Prize of Canada’s sublime Alice Munro, short story collections are still the outsiders and the also-rans in the business of book prizes.

This isn’t a simple matter of readerly unfairness; it may relate, in fact, to what a short story is supposed to be, or do. A great short story opens up possibilities which are not completely realized in the story itself. Unlike the novel, which attempts to achieve depth with closure, the short story gets meaning and intensity precisely from the fact that it doesn’t have closure. But reading a collection of these things can be like trying to eat a whole box of chocolates.

Facing the Other Way is a collection of linked short stories, a literary experi- ment that is gaining momentum, perhaps because it solves the “box of choco- lates” problem. In a sense, the writer (and the reader) get to have it both ways: the cosmic openness of the short story, with the greater depth that comes from following characters through time.

And there is another thing permitted by this approach, the freedom of the writer to change points of view on these people, so that we come to know them through multiple voices, the closest, of course, being the first person, spinning its self-deceiving narrative line.

As in the story, “Reaching for Graceland,” in which Ralph, whom we have already seen in a previous story, disgraced by his hypocrisy in the eyes of his teenaged son, unexpectedly confronts a dark secret from his past.

“Do you think about those days, Ralph? Innocent boys playing by a river?”

“No.” Ralph shakes his head. “Quite frankly, I’ve moved on.” Innocent? Odd choice of words. The day is not something he will discuss.

In the last story we are to see Ralph again briefly — he is tangential to the story line there — but long enough to understand that this grisly encounter has finally forced him to come to grips with his past.

When we first meet Emily it is the 1960s, she is hitch-hiking in Spain and contemplating the bourgeois life of university-followed-by-teacher-training. In this story, something happens which begins to turn her away from that direction. And in the next, she makes the leap.

 

Someone comes up beside her. “Emily?” he asks and when she looks up, a guy with a white tunic and turban pulls a chair up beside her. “I saw you outside,” he says. He takes her hands. The touch releases tears and then the need to be sick takes her over. Where can she go? Saliva pumps into her mouth. He grips her hands while she fights to pull away, to breathe. It passes to a cold sweat that coats her skin. Warmth returns.

“Come,” the guy says. “Follow me.” His eyes are grey-blue. “You were witness to a moment when the universe opened.” He searches her eyes. “I will take you through a series of postures. The yoga will restore your balance on the metaphysical plane.”

Emily moves into the yoga commune at Rochdale, manages to evade a group marriage, and eventually ends up in a different communalist arrange- ment where the story line is dominated by another character.

I loved this story sequence where Davies, as in the stories about Ralph, plays with many different narrative techniques, third person, close-in stream of consciousness, and first person through letters (in this pre-text message era) and diary, with finally, the more tangential presentation of Emily through the eyes of other people. The stories present what many of us can only dimly remember now, the pre-Feminist mind of a young woman, in the commune kitchen putting on the vegetables to steam for the lunchtime sandwiches, con- templating the empty face of the young man Gurujan has selected for her to marry, wondering whether she really will go through with that.

Lauralie invites the girls to prepare the plates for their husbands- to-be. “We will eat once our men are fully satisfied,” she says. ”Please be watchful, girls. Anticipate their needs.”

There is quite a lot of satisfaction in the jig-saw puzzle challenge of this book. As Emily comes up in the stories of the other characters, we have a sense of glad recognition: we feel we already really know her. And each time she appears, it adds another small element to her own story.

It started Monday, right after lunch, when Emily banged in the door — can you put her in the girl’s room till I get back with a ratty-looking girl in tow.

“Melannie,” she said, “can you — this is Louise — can you put her in the girls’ room till I get back. I gotta go, Ed Psych final in

. . .” She checked her watch. “Half an hour.”

And there was this kid standing in the hall with a “Vacant” sign on her face, half-frozen in a mini-skirt and a droopy sweatshirt.

This is the first-person voice of Melannie, describing the unexpected, unwanted arrival of Louise. Who is pregnant, as it turns out.

 

The woman has a pen out and a form ready. “OHIP number and name, please?”

Louise is in there having a baby. In a few days they’ll take the little thing away because she can’t look after it. “It’s for that girl who just went in. Her name is Melannie June Dobson,” I say. “Melannie with two n’s.”

It’s a nice “Anne with an e” touch, showing how fully-formed Melannie already is. But in the eponymous story, “Facing the Other Way,” she loses her sureness for a mid-life moment.

Salt air. White and blue stretches of sky. Gulls soaring. Waves. My body yearned to lie down, curl up. My black hole sucked everyone down.

The ending of this story expresses the way it is for all these characters: “There were seagulls sitting on the peak of the boathouse. All except one that was facing the other way.”

Probably the stories in which Lorraine is the main character best show the greatest change of consciousness of our era, and the effort — the personal cost — it entailed. In “Moving” Lorraine is striving to be the perfect Air Force wife.

She tucks the book away in the den. Time to switch on the peas and potatoes — Eric’s current favourites. Time to smooth the brown-checked cloth over the Arborite table. And then pull the chops out of the oven. They’re covered with a golden skin from the mushroom soup, something she’s trying from this month’s recipe exchange.

Cooking again! And it’s a far cry this time from The Tassajara Bread Book and the lunchtime vegetable sandwiches. Until Lorraine meets Thelma at the church basement free store, while she is trying to unload clothes and furniture after her husband’s promotion.

“Who is he, Lorraine? What’s his name?”

“Will. His name is Will. Will is training to be an Air Force pilot big shot. Will thinks I’m going to cook roast duck and clean up after drink-till-you-puke parties and sew slipcovers . . .”

“Sounds like you’re pretty angry about that, Lorraine. What do you think you’re going to do about it?”

She does something about it. Needless to say. And her doing something about it includes Thelma, whose internal voice appears in the last story, when Lorraine is dying.

 

It’s Christmas, and now they are all cooking together. Ralph does the lamb and Thelma will do the turkey, but with Melannie’s special sausage stuffing. But this one is about Thelma’s denial, her anger, the fighting spirit which won’t let Lorraine die in her own way.

Really, I liked all of these stories so much that I was almost blinded to the skill with which they were composed. The variety of narrative techniques, the evocative details from a past we remember, if we were there — could it really have been as awful as that? — the excellent use of dialogue, the clever way of building characterization through time.

This is Gwen Davies’ first book and it is a triumph.

— Susan Haley is working on a new novel she is calling The New Utopia.