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A Shark in the House

by Dorris Heffron

A Shark in the House starts promisingly enough: on page two our narrator, a Toronto dentist by the name of Holly Kowalski, breaks a professional confidence or two to report that her clients Timothy Findley and Greg Gatenby have very different tongues. Now there’s something to chew on. Too bad, but it’s there and it’s gone. There’s nothing further on in A Shark in the House to live up to that early, mouthy moment; after that, the plot is a plod, the writing spare (“Witty remarks ensued” describes a party scene), and the characters – okay, let’s just say that Holly and friends are as transparent as the grin the dentist gives just before he pliers free a couple of bicuspids you were firmly attached to. That’s another thing: in this narration, everything is clumsily dental-specific. “When I look into the mouth of my life,” Holly tells us, “it is not a pretty, sweet-smelling sight.” Would that be because the Divine Dental Hygienist skimped on fluoride or are we merely talking existential bad breath?

Dorris Heffron is a Toronto writer who’s previously published novels for young adults; this is her first for us who are aged adults. The scene is Toronto, circa 1990, and Holly has decided that this life/mouth of hers needs writing down. As mentioned, it’s been hard going, and she’s looking for diversion, a little therapy, maybe some answers – she’s choosing prose over Prozac. She’s no professional writer, she makes clear, but then her best friend Chick is, and she’ll help, because it’s her story, too.

And so back we go into Holly’s humble Toronto childhood. Holly is born to salt-of-the-earth Polish immigrant parents (to confirm their Polishness, the mother makes it into print, unfortunately, with an accent: “Nothink good enough for this child!” she’s heard to exclaim), she grows up, falls into firm friendship with Chick, marries a wealthy dentist, gives birth, outgrows her dangerously narrow-minded husband, becomes a dentist herself, suffers a Terrible Tragedy, buys a big house and a Jag, finds love again, and establishes herself as a woman of model independence.

By the end of A Shark in the House, Holly seems to feel a whole lot better about herself: she writes her way to a happy ending. That’s all very well for her, but for those of us looking in on her therapy, there’s not much to take away with us; No real feeling for Holly’s motivations, no sympathy for her predicaments, scarcely any warmth for her personality. We just can’t seem to get close. There’s an odd formality to her tone, lots of surface, little substance. There’s a party whereat she meets a single-eyed poet called Petrarch. “He found me fascinating,” Holly says. “He found me real.” He may be alone in his findings; we wait in vain for conclusive proof of our own.

Then again, in this novel, even the real people are undimensional. For some reason, Heffron scatters into the story a handful of non-fictitious characters – literary types, mostly – who “bear their real names.” At parties or at Holly’s office for molar maintenance are “the illustrious Gatenby and Findley, the golden-haired giant of CanLit, Susan Swan, prize winners like Olive Senior, and ultimately, the incredibly handsome young Nino Ricci.” They don’t talk; maybe they’re wondering, like the rest of us, just what their purpose on the page is. Holly moves among mannequins; the bad news for her is that their personalities appear to be contagious.


Reviewer: Stephen Smith

Publisher: Key Porter


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 293 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-55013-742-5

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: 1996-5

Categories: Fiction: Novels