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Teaching Pigs to Sing

by Cordelia Strube

“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere,” the poet Philip Larkin said. At its best, Cordelia Strube’s third novel, Teaching Pigs to Sing, manages to make something out of nothing. Regrettably, this story of Rita Johnson, a single mother and self-described loser is seldom at its best. I read more than half the novel before I was able to figure out what, if anything, was at stake for the novel’s long-suffering protagonist. It’s almost as if Strube takes a kind of obstinate pride in allowing as little to happen as possible, both in terms of action and emotional consequences. But you can carry this sort of kitchen-sink realism too far. Life is different from fiction in one important respect: life is supposed to be boring.

So even though Rita undergoes unpleasant surgery, wages a losing battle against the mice infesting her kitchen, and copes with her dysfunctional family, the narrative is made up mostly of Rita’s complaints and worries. The complaints are about herself, about men, and about her dysfunctional family, which includes a handicapped mother, a misanthropic father, and a sister in a failing marriage. The worrying is over Rita’s six-year-old son, Max.

This relationship is at the heart of the novel and Strube portrays it with affection and an authentic grasp of parental fear. More than anything else, Rita wishes she could keep her son’s view of the world fresh and untainted. After a while, though, there is too much of just Rita and Max and nothing else. I began to feel like I was stuck watching someone’s home movies.

Strube, who lives in Toronto and has worked as an actor and a playwright, has been praised for her candid take on contemporary relationships in her first two novels Alex and Zee (1994) and Milton’s Elements (1995). She has also been compared favourably to Carol Shields. It’s a legitimate comparison, up to a point. Like Shields, Strube has a dark sense of humour and an admirable commitment to redeeming and reviving the ordinary, giving it the importance it deserves. The difference is that in The Stone Diaries, for example, Shields recognized that you have to invest even the most mundane scenes with magic. For most of Teaching Pigs to Sing Strube never does enough with her story to make us overlook its uneventfulness, even if that uneventfulness is calculated.

The good news is that when something does happen, Strube handles it skillfully. It’s not surprising either that when something happens, it happens to Max. This unexpected plot twist forces Rita to question all the things she has accepted throughout the novel – from her disappointment with Max’s absent father to her disappointment with herself. To her credit, Strube’s investment in detailing both the practical and impractical anxieties a mother experiences raising her child finally pays off. The end of Teaching Pigs to Sing is compelling and ambitious, as Strube poignantly explores Rita’s discovery of an unexpected place where life is precarious and frightening but also worthwhile. It’s just too bad it takes so long to arrive at that place.


Reviewer: Joel Yanofsky

Publisher: HarperCollins


Price: $20

Page Count: 288 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-00-648098-5

Released: Aug.

Issue Date: 1996-5

Categories: Fiction: Novels