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The Penguin Anthology of Stories by Canadian Women

by Denise Chong, ed.

Non-fiction writer and now editor Denise Chong, likes short stories because: (a) she can “hold completely within [her] imagination from the first word to the last the characters around whom events swirl,” and (b) she doesn’t need a bookmark to read them. To choose the 31 stories, she narrowed criteria, picking only previously published stories in which “women figure as central characters, where their points of view dominate” in stories that take place “within living memory and in Canada.” Also, she wanted stories “whose women characters could be invited easily into the lives of readers.”

The result of such mis- and preconceptions – do we pursue only ourselves when reading? Must characters be welcome? – is a burdened and bloated sum of lovely parts. In spite of still-brilliant classics, Chong’s selections are plotty, repetitive, and driven too often by wheedling inner voices of women who, as Carol Shields’ narrator puts it, have “been fucked up by men who no longer [care] about them.” Fiction requires conflict, but in most of these stories, women are betrayed, abused, raped, or ignored by husbands, boyfriends, and fathers. Even in the story with a lesbian theme, Jane Rule’s “Lillian,” the narrator is cold, bitter, and unfulfilled by her many younger lovers.

Predictably, the narrators drone and overlap and mimic each other. Of 31 writers, only a few – including Dionne Brand, Eden Robinson, Holley Rubinsky, and Ethel Wilson – achieve individuality. Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana,” Rubinsky’s “Rapid Transits,” and Linda Svendson’s “White Shoulders” form a triptych at which storymakers will always say Grace, asking blessing, giving thanks. But even these are bled by adjacent stories.

What might have been? Young writers absent from this anthology, such as Elise Levine, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, and Nice Rodriguez, create women we’ve never met before, strangers who press us to read life’s details with imagination and irony. And fewer selections might help, or surprising ones from established writers, stories about women and men with whom we do not share domestic tribulation.


Reviewer: Lorna Jackson

Publisher: Viking


Price: $35

Page Count: 472 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-670-87633-X

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 1997-12

Categories: Anthologies, Children and YA Non-fiction