This is the fifth short-story collection from Rachel Wyatt, Member of the Order of Canada, former Banff Centre director of writing programs, and author of numerous novels and plays. Unsurprisingly, Street Symphony is an accomplished work remarkable for its compassion, humour, and observations about lives at the margins.
Most remarkable of all is Wyatt’s symphonic approach to character – major, minor, and incidental: all are named, and some appear in more than one story. Like the protagonist of the titular tale, who walks the streets listening to “the offbeat tune of the crowd,” readers are immersed in an apparent cacophony of people and events, teased by possible connections and meanings.
Unusual for short fiction, character perspectives sometimes switch within stories.This will either intrigue or irritate individual readers. Everything becomes a potential clue to how the 17 stories interconnect, particularly character names, which are scattered about with such profusion that readers may begin scribbling notes, if not filling whiteboards, in an effort to grasp the associations. These include names misheard, misunderstood, or conjured as handles for strangers. In “Caffè Italia,” which consists of five interwoven pieces, it is difficult to fathom the number, nature, and degree of connections between the 50-plus characters (let alone their links to the collection’s other stories).
Catching the rhythm of Street Symphony’s crowd is best achieved by reading the collection over a short period, but each story – from a mildly farcical crime tale about a wealthy senior’s travelling companion, to the pathos of a woman’s struggle to cope with her husband’s post-traumatic reversion to childlike ways – is a self-contained pleasure. Wyatt’s prose is consistently elegant in its simplicity, and occasionally flecked with appealing turns of phrase. But everything serves the narrative purpose: the creation of nuanced emotional journeys.