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My Darling Dead Ones

by Erika de Vasconcelos

“Death resolves so little, in the end,” Erika de Vasconcelos writes at the end of her wonderfully assured first novel. “And I understand that none of my suffering is new. There is a comfort in this.”

And despite its gloomy title, there is much comfort, beauty, and delight in My Darling Dead Ones. Born in Montreal in 1965 and raised in a Portuguese-Canadian family, de Vasconcelos was a recent finalist in the CBC/Saturday Night short story contest. Her novel traces the journey made by a young Torontonian named Fiona as she explores her family’s history in Portugal and her connections with her grandmother Helena, her great-aunt Magdalena, and her own mother, Leninha.

De Vasconcelos’s prose is confident and her images powerful. Consider the novel’s opening: “I am kneeling before my grandmother. Her thigh is as thick as my arm. She is sitting in her chair beside the bed, pulling on stockings. They are thick and woolly, like little girls’ tights, and I must hold them up with an old elastic, a band she may have used before around some book, or a stack of letters. She is tiny, tiny. This is the chair she will die in, later, though we do not know it yet. About the chair, I mean. Death is expected. Wished for, almost. Yes. Wished for.”

What is especially wonderful about My Darling Dead Ones is the abundance of life teeming through its pages: the Portuguese landscape of hilly, yellow-stuccoed houses is palpable; Magdalena’s flat in Lisbon invites exploration of its quaint clutter; one sniffs the scent of fresh earth as Leninha creates a “back room” of hostas and calla lilies in her suburban Montreal garden; the reader’s eyes are assaulted by Fiona’s apple-green kitchen where she recalls scenes from her failed marriage to an actor named Neil.

In just over 200 pages, de Vasconcelos creates a complex and sumptuous world. Throughout the novel, images from the past are triggered by events in the present. For instance, as Leninha works in her garden (“Artemesia, campanula, astilbe, sedum. Words like silent caresses on her tongue”) she remembers another yard in Portugal, and a cruel childhood game that tricked a neighbourhood playmate into eating “bug soup.” Fiona melds her memories of past visits to Portugal to see her grandmother and great-aunt with her present explorations, noting that her parents’ new flat there will become what her two daughters remember of a country “both foreign and familiar.”

De Vasconcelos ends this novel of exile and return with Fiona’s participation in the wonderfully pragmatic ceremony of exhuming her grandmother’s bones to place them in a smaller casket because “one must make room for the dead, in these old countries.”

The focus on female characters and the intimate world of family in My Darling Dead Ones may tempt some critics to liken it to one of Knopf’s 1996 hits, Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald. That would be a misreading, for de Vasconcelos is a vibrant new voice, with an identity all her own.