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By a Frozen River: The Short Stories of Norman Levine

by Norman Levine

Norman Levine’s short stories enjoy a higher reputation in Europe than in Canada, perhaps because Levine’s craft is too quietly impressionistic, too expertly minimalistic for some home-grown readers. By a Frozen River, a collection of previously published stories, further demonstrates the Levine style: simple on the surface, yet elaborate in a way that only a shrewd craftsman can pull off.

Just as the narrator in the opening story, “A Father,” has to work through layers of his fruit-peddler father’s personality to find his living centre, so must the reader engage the work’s sparse literary economy to find resonance. Levine guides the reader with carefully chosen imagery, as in “In Quebec City,” where the narrator is secretly in love with his host’s wife. Her amateurish oil paintings speak to her low self-esteem while the green creeper in the living room is emblamatic of her choked life.

Levine favours the first-person narrative, a technique that forces the reader to see through a single pair of eyes. However, his narrators – usually writers – keep their senses alert to nuances of feeling and thought. And although their settings include Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, and the Maritimes, there is nothing distinctively regional about the stories. They capture the ambience of city or town, but their primary impulses are toward the small but often powerful significances Levine’s characters draw from life.

Taken as a whole, the stories reveal little bits of what it means to be a permanent outsider – an immigrant, resident alien, Jew, or writer. The first-person point of view is of considerable advantage in this regard, capturing the subjective experience of the outsider without straining the narrative’s natural amplitude.