Friday, October 14, 2011

Fables of Brunswick Avenue by Katherine Govier

I was given this book as a gift from my soon-to-be mother-in-law when I moved to Toronto. It is a collection of short stories which, if not all set on Brunswick Ave., are certainly tied to it through the author's memory of a certain time.

The stories are brief, and I don't just mean short - they seem to be deliberately set up as fragments or snapshots of their character's lives. I found them all to be well-written and evocative, but unavoidably bleak. I don't think there was one story in the collection that was happy; not even a little bit. They have the distinctive flavour of an older and wiser author looking back at a time in her life that probably seemed sweet and exciting at the time, but through a different lens, it does come out as somewhat depressing.

The stories deal with the doubts, fears and neuroses of people in their twenties, and added to the clear Toronto backdrop, they should have been totally relateable for me. But perhaps I am a couple years too old - or twenty years too young - to understand the problems the characters were facing. Or maybe I'm just not fun enough, complicated enough. I did have a hard time sympathizing with people who seemed very self-involved. The whole time I was reading it I had the sense that the author is much nicer than the characters in whom she was seeing herself.

One thing I loved was the introduction, in which Govier talks about her own time living on Brunswick Avenue and the funny encounters she had. It is frank and hilarious and honestly gave me too high hopes for the rest of the book. I can't help wondering if a non-fiction collection - of stories of her time there - might not have been a better choice.

Reading a whole book of short stories at once is perhaps not recommended. I think that if you are in the mood for something that's a bit of a downer, a story from this book would be perfect; for all the thematic gloominess, they are beautifully written stories. And for a taste of Toronto in the 1970s it is excellent. However, having read the author's full-length fiction and knowing it to be vastly superior, I have a hard time recommending this book.

Two towers out of five

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