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Book Reviews

The English Stories

by Cynthia Flood

Thought You Were Dead

by Terry Griggs

The increasing corporatization of Canadian publishing has left more than a few authors and cultural commentators grumbling about a bottom-line, cookie-cutter approach to everything from manuscript acquisition to cover design. This perceived homogenization and its impact on the state of the industry will generate debate for years to come, but there is no question that some of our more idiosyncratic and uncompromising authors have seen their work marginalized, both inside and outside the publishing world, over the last decade.

Luckily for everybody concerned, publishers like Biblioasis are still devoted to a literary-value-first model, as evidenced in two of their spring titles, Thought You Were Dead and The English Stories, both by veteran authors who have more than established their lit cred over the years.

Terry Griggs’ Thought You Were Dead can be summarized as a playful deconstruction of the genteel drawing-room detective novel, brimming with knowing winks to fans of the genre and the more highbrow reader. The novel opens with Chellis Beith, a boozy small-town researcher-for-hire possessed of an encyclopedic vocabulary, receiving a phone call from his most generous employer, Athena Havlock, an award-winning literary author who has made a fortune writing detective novels under a pseudonym. Havlock needs Beith to flesh out an idea for a new whodunit, and soon Beith is looking into the origins of a strange photograph of a graveyard that his boss received in the mail. When Havlock goes missing and a beautiful temptress shows up claiming to be the daughter of Beith’s long-lost mother, Beith finds himself in the middle of a sinister plot of Chandleresque complexity.

The narrative and dialogue are clever and lively from beginning to end, and many readers will enjoy the layers of comic nuance as Griggs turns the genre inside out. Beith is a fine take on the stock character of the reluctant gentleman detective, though his snobby attitude to pop culture and constant allusions to classical music and literature make him seem older than he’s meant to be.

Unfortunately, Griggs applies the same High Sardonic tone to every situation, trivial or tragic. A boring lunch is “comparable in length to the Precambrian,” God is “the Almighty Celebrity above,” and if a mouth is designated as a “gullet” near the beginning of a paragraph, it will undoubtedly graduate to “gustatory vessel” within a sentence or two. It’s not that these bursts of wordplay lack wit and originality, but like the unsolicited sharing of puns or riddles, a little generosity goes a long way.

Cynthia Flood’s The English Stories couldn’t be further removed in tone and intention from Thought You Were Dead, but its author shows the same level of care and devotion to craft as Griggs. The linked stories follow pre-teen Amanda Ellis as she and her parents end their final summer visit to the family’s Muskoka cottage and depart for the father’s two-year sabbatical in postwar England, a journey that parallels Amanda’s emergence into young womanhood.

The family moves into an Oxford hotel that serves as a base for Mr. Ellis’s research trips to various British universities, but Amanda is forced to attend a local boarding school where she is initially persecuted by staff and students for her colonial accent and mannerisms. The point of view shifts from Amanda’s voice to third-person renderings of her experiences to stories focused on the lives of the teachers, creating an extended montage of intimate, detailed portraits of the human lives cramped inside the stifling mores of a British girls’ school in the early 1950s.

Amanda is a typically observant and sensitive protagonist, both repelled and intrigued by the mysterious power relations of the adult world and their crude reflections in the school hierarchy. Flood artfully transplants the conventions of the Canadian Gothic story form and its obsession with death, isolation, madness, and natural landscape into the static, provincial milieu of the genteel British lower-middle-classes enshrined in the works of V.S. Pritchett.

The effects vary, usually in relation to the narrative’s proximity to Amanda. Flood creates a vivid gallery of British types – retired Victorian professor, ex-officer, spinster twins, repressed lesbian schoolteacher – but these tragicomic grotesques only achieve full poignancy when contrasted with Amanda’s sensitive, outsider’s point of view. Too often the Amanda-less sections read like extended narrative tone poems, studies in mood that meander into pure character until Flood brings the action to a close, usually with an unexpectedly violent resolution.

Taken together, the stories ultimately achieve a brooding resonance that captures the literal and spiritual dampness of a provincial scene that all but died out with the last remnants of the British Empire.