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Book Reviews

The King of Siam

by Murray Logan

Each of the 13 stories in Murray Logan’s debut collection is a treat, but none embodies so compactly his themes as the first, “Everett and Evalyne.” The tale, which unwraps the birthday present that the narrator, Evalyne, gives herself, takes place in Vancouver, but it has an exotic air, not just as the character study of an aged eccentric but more as the dispatch from a far-off land. Set (in part) in a present-day affluent blue-rinse neighbourhood, it nonetheless has more to do with tattoo parlours and Harley-Davidson motorcycles than with matrons and sensible shoes. This is the story’s surprising delight, and through it we discover Logan’s enduring concerns: the setting of the individual against societal conventions; the isolation of life on the margins, which means both freedom and loneliness; the weight that physical details play in stories about quiet people who cannot or will not connect; and that moment in life that does not so much impel into the future as it closes a chapter of the past. The story’s pace is equally characteristic: its setup is unhurried, allowing readers to orient themselves within Evalyne’s world, but the introduction of the catalyst, in this case Everett, intensifies the domestic drama toward a crisis that is never fully resolved.

“Everett and Evalyne” is a supremely satisfying short story, and it leaves the reader wanting more, but more is this collection’s only undoing. Mavis Gallant’s warning about stories not being chapters in a novel holds especially true with Logan. By the end of the book, a template of the Logan story emerges; it is difficult to embrace the limited variations of the stories’ conclusions, which too often parallel that of the first story. When Evalyne opens and recognizes her present, the writer pulls back to conceal its content. Though in this example it seems coy and intriguing, the technique grates with repetition.

The King of Siam remains an engaging introduction to a careful and clever writer. Logan’s ability to weave theme through plot and subplot makes each story rich, and imbues everyday details with satisfying emotions. These loners, at first glance unattractive or unappealing – who knew the downfall of a middle-aged Hungarian community-centre chess king could be so gripping?– bring with them trophies of untrammelled realms that Logan makes fresh and surprising.