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Vital Signs: New Women Writers in Canada

by Diane Schoemperlen,ed.

Short fiction – recently mourned as something no one was reading much any more – appears to be undergoing a renaissance among Canadian writers, and many of the newest and smartest practitioners of these compressed glimpses of reality are women.

One concrete proof of this rebirth comes in the form of Vital Signs, Oberon Press’s new collection of 11 exciting women writers whose stories are edited by one of the country’s most impressive writer-editors, Diane Schoemperlen of Kingston, Ontario.

Writers featured here are Pamela Donoghue, Nora Gold, Maureen Garvie, Zsuzsi Gartner, Marilyn Sciuk, Elizabeth Greene, Anne Fleming, Carla Douglas, Elaine Littmann, Nadine McInnis, and Tonja Gunvaldsen Klassen. They are all talented, many of them creating stories so good the reader is sorry when they end and wishes the authors would turn their characters loose in novels – or at least novellas.

Among the 11 writers, only Nova Scotia resident Donoghue, who works part-time as a pharmacist, has published a collection of her own, Comfort Zones, although Gartner has a collection slated for publication. The other nine certainly have the potential.

Donoghue’s contribution to Vital Signs, “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot,” introduces a couple named Robert and Lisa whose trip to Jasper National Park is urged upon them by their marriage therapist. The story captures the excruciating pain of an unravelling relationship. Donoghue’s writing is straightforward, with a reportorial edge tinged by wry understatement. When Lisa tells Robert, “You’ve changed,” the statement encapsulates years of wishful thinking and disappointment. In fact, Robert hasn’t changed since he was 24, so the reader knows it’s only a matter of pages before Lisa announces, “I don’t think I love you any more,” and her true subtext emerges.

Several other stories in Vital Signs also have to do with loss. For instance, in “The Nature of Pure Evil,” Vancouver writer Zsuzsi Gartner tells a droll tale of an office worker named Hedy, who hits upon the release of fake bomb threats as a means of expressing her anger after her live-in boyfriend Stanley jilts her. Stanley’s way of leaving Hedy is brutally unique: he goes off to a wedding to which she isn’t invited and it turns out to be his own, to another woman. To make matters worse, Hedy’s best friend Brigit insists on telling everyone what happened as a way of proving that Stanley has to be “pure evil,” since Hedy maintains he is not the slightest bit crazy. Gartner’s off-the-wall characters are entirely believable.

In “Hit and Run Cowboy,” Marilyn Sciuk flawlessly creates the mentality of a macho truck-drivin’ man who uses beer and bravado to tamp down his fear and his lack of genuine power. In Nora Gold’s compact four-page story, “Marrow,” the pain of a miscarriage is presented as both incomprehensible – and as a door to memories of the past.

The stories in Vital Signs encompass a robust gamut of styles – from Carla Douglas’s post-modernist “Sharp Turn at a Pivotal Moment” to Elizabeth Greene’s more traditional depiction of a woman’s discovery of her own independence while on a driving trip in Britain with her autistic son.

This is indeed a fine and vital collection, the sign of yet another new crop of good writers toiling on the fringes of recognition.


Reviewer: Lynne Van Luven

Publisher: Oberon


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 126 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7780-1061-9

Released: June

Issue Date: 1997-8

Categories: Anthologies, Children and YA Non-fiction