Though this collection of short stories is the first work of fiction from Montreal’s Mireille Silcoff, the author’s name may already be familiar to readers. Silcoff is a regular National Post columnist and has previously authored Archetypes, a collection of her columns, and non-fiction works about youth culture. It’s no surprise, then, that Chez l’Arabe is polished, but it’s more than just that. The collection is a consistently pleasurable read, largely due to Silcoff’s characters and scenarios being so vividly yet economically drawn.
The thread holding the eight stories together is the disorientation and tentative attempts at adjustment required when life throws a curve ball in the form of death, divorce, estrangement, or sickness. The latter is particularly prominent: three connected stories were inspired by the chronic spinal condition that has plagued Silcoff in recent years. One can’t help but wonder where autobiography ends and fiction begins as the protagonist of these stories deals with an increasingly difficult mother and indifferent husband. House-bound invalidism precipitates a rash escape to California.
Engaging and well crafted as these first-person stories are, the greatest pleasure is found in other, mostly third-person tales that elegantly encapsulate the relationships between and among their characters. A woman grieving her daughter’s death reaches a new level of desperation when her high-functioning autistic husband succumbs to dementia. A recently divorced woman is disappointed by her deceptively glamorous house guest. In the collection’s grimly amusing final story, a man whose glory days are behind him reflects on his three marriages. And, in its most understated and exquisite snapshot, a dinner-party doyenne recalls the inspiration of her beloved stepmother.
Chez l’Arabe’s references to Jewish Montreal will deliver enjoyable moments of recognition to readers familiar with this milieu, but they are so gently matter-of-fact that others will be drawn in by a vicarious sense of familiarity. Such references are just the most obvious examples of Silcoff’s keen observations, which, combined with the stuff of her imagination, are laid down on the page like little gems of uncommon brilliance and depth.