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The Best Thing For You

by Annabel Lyon

Annabel Lyon is a sharp, funny, and subversive writer who knows how to keep her readers off-balance. Reviews of her first short-story collection, Oxygen, were ecstatic, and the trio of long stories that comprise The Best Thing For You continues the highly enjoyable experience of watching a gifted writer hone her craft. Will she move next into the novel form and begin encroaching on Atwood territory? Or will she remain within the short-fiction genre, concentrating as assiduously on language and imagery as on plot and character? She could go either way.

Lyon is something of a magpie, stealing good stuff to make her creations. “No Fun” tells the story of a cool Vancouver couple (she’s a doctor, he’s a film professor) whose son may or may not have been involved in the vicious beating of a mentally retarded man. The whole situation, right down to the professions of the parents, echoes Rosellen Brown’s 1992 novel, Before and After, in which the son commits a brutal murder. In Lyon’s version, the agony of not knowing the truth eats away at the intimacy between husband and wife and casts a shadow over the sort of cool upscale parenting that boasts, “We’ve always been more like three adults than like parents and child.”

That story’s final scene, with the three of them in a neon-drenched video store trying to choose a movie they can all agree on, the one that will “take us home,” is a wry and unhappy comment on contemporary urban family life and its bloodlessness.

As a baby-boom reviewer, I was floored by the lead character in “No Fun.” Kate, the mother of the 14-year-old boy, recalls her uneasy early motherhood, when “I had only recently taken the safety pins out of my ears.” It’s a shock to realize that the first generation of aggressive-piercers are now reaching middle age -– I could swear we skipped a generation in there somewhere.

The title story, also set in Vancouver (but at the end of the Second World War), borrows a familiar set-up from film noir. A bored and pretty young housewife decides to kill her clueless lump of a husband and manages, through sexual entanglement, to enlist the help of the local butcher boy to do the deed. But Lyon does more interesting things with the plot, creating a second half to the story in which the young son of the woman’s insurance broker becomes obsessed with the saucy murderess and vows to write an opera about her, while his father’s naïve belief in her innocence gets him fired from his job. The effect of the girl’s original evil impulse spreads through the story like a bloodstain. Her psychosis is captured perfectly at her husband’s funeral, where she makes a game of looking at the mourners through her widow’s veil and moving her head slightly – “enough to blot out various faces with the larger knots in the lace. Thinking: I made this, and this, and this.”

Best of the three novellas is “The Goldberg Metronome” in which Lyon carries the reader through the life cycle of a precious object (remember The Red Violin?), in this case an exquisite blue metronome created in the atelier of a famous artist – Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in fact – for a young Jew in pre-war Berlin as a present for his new bride. We see the Jew’s daughter use it during her cello lessons, and then watch in anguish as it is sold during the war to a German history professor for far below its value, in a futile attempt to help the Jewish family escape Berlin. The history professor in turn has a daughter who, in the turmoil of the late 1960s, steals the metronome to use in an anarchist bomb attack that goes wildly wrong, before she escapes to New York, where she becomes an antique dealer and gives the metronome, in an act of obsessive expiation, to a man she hopes is a Jew.

Through two or three more steps, the object is lost again, but not before it touches the lives of a young Canadian couple who are struggling with their own relationship to the world of coveted things that seems to be slowly but inexorably eroding their feelings for each other.

The exquisite layering of this story – I’ve described it forward but Lyon tells it backward – also sets up reverberations, but this time with the work of a much finer artist: W. G. Sebald, the German “writer’s writer” whose hallmark is the slow uncovering of stories from narrator to narrator in a quiet but insistent search for some kernel of truth that remains constantly elusive. What is exhilarating about Lyon’s work is that she has enough confidence in her imagination and her craft so that she can borrow from the best and still create art that is absolutely her own.


Reviewer: Bronwyn Drainie

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $24.99

Page Count: 332 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-7710-5397-5

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: 2004-4

Categories: Fiction: Short