Canadians generally appear more restrained and orderly than their southern neighbors; even Canadian chaos seems orderly compared with the American variety. The working-class Vancouver family depicted in Linda Svendsen’s first book, a series of intertwined stories, flirts resolutely with chaos, but instead of producing tabloid headlines, as any self-respecting warped American family would do, the Nordstroms merely produce slightly queasy family anecdotes.

Having reluctantly left an abusive husband, Joyce Nordstrom visits the house of her sedately married sister Irene, and while cleaning the birdcage deliberately vacuums up Irene’s prize finch. Her brother, Ray, a tattooed longshoreman who drinks too much and drives too fast, takes a girlfriend, Velma, to the beach, where he holds her underwater, finally letting her bob up and gasp for air; when she sulkily demands, ”What gets into you?” he replies that ”he was only teasing, couldn’t she take a joke, didn’t she know he was the Purple People Eater.” Adele Nordstrom, the adoring much younger sister of Ray, Joyce, and Irene, and the narrator of these stories, describes a drive in which her stepfather, 12 years younger than her mother, is provoked by her mother’s mild conjecture that he might go for a younger woman like Ray’s new girlfriend; shouting ”Take it back,” he steers the car at full speed toward a tree, screeching to a halt inches away from it, at which point Adele’s mother kisses him. She expects danger from men.

The style of Adele’s narration is cool, flat, elliptical, sometimes naive and childlike, but always unflinching. She stares down the family infirmities: incest in Irene’s proper house; terminal immaturity in Ray; the failure of her mother, a cocktail pianist, to conceive of life without abject devotion to men like her boisterous, sarcastic third husband, Robert: ”Mum couldn’t bear to see any woman manless. She and Robert equated Joyce’s lost marriage to falling off a horse: she must mount again, the sooner the better.” Adele doesn’t spare herself. Having moved to New York and married an American boyfriend, she comes to realize that her jealous fits are delusive, but she can’t help it: ”And with that I admitted, to myself, what I’d always known. I was Bill’s only lover; I would continue to measure every other woman with his eyes: will she be the one?” Her marriage, like her mother’s first two, like Ray’s and like Joyce’s, ends in divorce.

Some of these spare vignettes are especially telling—for instance, those of Adele’s father, her mother’s second husband, an almost eerily detached and passionless lumber worker. But they remain vignettes, convincing but never very startling or moving. Compared with the stories of her older compatriots Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, Svendsen’s tales lack a complexity of invention and dimension. As the Romans used to say, ars est celare artem—the real art is to conceal art—and in Marine Life‘s casual, fragmented stories, there is reality, and considerable promise, but not quite enough smuggled art.

Marine Life
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