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The Lion in the Room Next Door

by Merilyn Simonds

At what point, if ever, do events recalled from memory become history? And how accurate is that history and whose story does it tell? Once that story is told, perhaps with artful intervention to improve the narrative, do we categorize it as fiction or non-fiction?

Those perplexing questions haunt Merilyn Simonds’ latest book, in which the stories inhabit that ever-shifting land called literary non-fiction, a world informed by fact but animated by techniques frequently deployed in drama and fiction.

Simonds seems to anticipate the genre placement arguments this collection is likely to launch. She writes, “This is my story, but it is not the whole story. Each of the people who lived through these events will have their own stories to tell. Their memories will almost certainly not coincide precisely with mine, for memory is specific to perspective and no two perspectives are ever exactly the same.”

Following the success of her 1996 book, The Convict Lover, the story imagined from real letters between a Kingston Penitentiary prisoner and an impressionable young woman, Simonds is again challenging the divisions between fact and fiction. The result is a compelling but stark memoir in 11 parts that roves through Brazil, Greece, Sweden, Mexico, and northern Canada, evoking a particular place through the filter of memory. The author uses her knowledge of Portuguese (she spent her childhood in Brazil) to organize the stories into three sections: Saudades (Yearnings), Lipes (Sorrows), and Milagros (Miracles). Simonds cites Ottawa writer Norman Levine, who once told her, “All life, once lived, is fiction,” to illuminate her approach.

My favourite stories in the collection include “The Lion in the Room Next Door,” which is a tantalizing evocation of a child’s imaginative life that leaves the reader poised on the cusp of uncertainty; “Navigating the Kattegat,” an agonizing description of family conflict, and “The Day of the Dead,” in which Simonds functions as a travel guide through the familiar exotica of a small Ontario town. In the latter, what starts as a sentimental tour ends as a moving and wonderfully orchestrated meditation on mortality and loss.

Simonds’ prose is taut and sound: she tells us only what counts, those images and experiences that linger in the heart and mind long after the actual event has passed. – by Lynne Van Luven, who teaches at the University of Victoria, B.C.