Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Finding the Enemy

by Mary Soderstrom

These 14 linked short stories touch upon the lives of Stewart and Dorothy Rice, their four children, and June, at first a seemingly unrelated character, from the end of the Second World War until the 1980s. Terse vignettes follow Stewart and Dorothy from Los Alamos to California and back to Montreal where they originally met. Their unhappy marriage threatens to implode, but never does. The Rice children, Gordon, Fiona, Olivia, and Margaret, take leading roles in some stories. June also appears from time to time until she finally meets Stewart, after Dorothy has immolated herself by trying to snatch a bottle of scotch from a kitchen fire.

Collectively, the stories look in upon these characters like small windows on a sad house. Gordon, a physicist, is haunted by his role in the development of the nuclear bomb. He seeks refuge in research. Dorothy sinks into an alcoholic haze after realizing she cannot afford to leave him. But these details unfold in fragments, over the course of many stories, intertwined with tangential events in the children’s lives.

Gordon marries Lucy after helping to pay for an abortion she needed when she met him. Lucy, a Californian, cannot relate to the Canadian winter. Fiona encounters a clash of cultures in Montreal. Olivia struggles for sanity by embracing a harsh religion. Margaret’s marriage fails. It is difficult to know these characters, though, partly because their narratives are so fragmented, and partly because Soderstrom rarely stays with a single point of view for more than a few pages. In June’s stories, where her point of view prevails throughout, the writing is stronger and carries more emotional weight.

Many of these stories were originally published separately in literary magazines. Underlying all are big issues – the search for meaning in modern life; whether physics is a path into the mind of God; humanity’s need to create, to control, and destroy. Individually, the stories work. But painting these large issues on so many small, disjointed canvases in a single collection serves to disorient the reader, sometimes to the point of annoyance.