The Juliet Stories
Toronto: Anansi, 2012.
Carrie Snyder, aka Obscure Canlit Mama, has a new collection of stories out this month, and it is glorious. I know Carrie. We met at the University of Toronto, in a graduate English class on Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. There is a part of me that, for this moment, wishes that I did not know Carrie because it would make it easier to gush and to tell you that these stories remind me so vividly of the excellence to be found in Munro’s and Gallant’s stories of young girls and women and to have you believe me. I can have no claim to objectivity, but I can tell you that this collection is one my favourite reads of the past year.
The Juliet Stories are divided into two halves, the first half set in Nicaragua and the second in Canada. The stories set in 1980s Nicaragua span the years when Juliet is 10 and 11. She moves from America to Nicaragua where her parents work as peace activists protesting the American involvement in the war, and the pacing and narration of these stories is pitch-perfect. Snyder captures perfectly the disequilibrium of the third culture kid, children who are raised in a culture other than their parents’ home culture. Perhaps because I, too, was a third culture kid, I feel particularly drawn to this half of the book, and I was immediately engrossed by Juliet’s experience of learning how to cope in a new country. Juliet’s mother, Gloria, is heart-breakingly overwhelmed and feckless, and Juliet seems stranded not only in a new country but unmoored even within her own family:
At home in Indiana, Gloria was just her mother, warming homemade soup on the stove as Juliet and her best friend, Laci, burst through the front door for lunch, or standing framed in the front window watching Juliet climb to the top of the school’s monkey bars and walk across, the only girl in grade three who dared. But here, in this strange city, Juliet glimpses the stranger Gloria could become, giddy in her jubilation, separate and apart from her children: hardly a mother at all. A novel sensation grips Juliet’s gut–shame. She is angry at herself for feeling this way, but mostly at her mother, for making her feel this way. (7)
Isn’t that so much like Alice Munro’s girls becoming women? Painfully aware of a shame that has suddenly and unaccountably found a place in her psyche. And like Gallant’s Linnet Muir, this girl will be ruthless in how she uses the material of her life for her writing. When Juliet discovers Renate, their ungracious and unwilling host for their first weeks in Nicaragua, kicking their belongings across the floor in disgust, Renate calls her a rat, even though Juliet has no intention of telling her mother what she saw.
But Renate is right.
Juliet is a little rat.
Just for now, she’s a packrat, adding to her piles, her secret stash; but one day, someday, she will be that other kind of rat, she will tell, in her own way, wearing the sheerest of disguises, quite remorseless. And none of it will be true; and all of it will be. And even that is not true, because there is nothing absolute about telling: there are only fragments, shards, the rare object retained whole, ciphers removed from original context, hoarded by shifty, impecunious memory.
The stories are full of passages like this one: marvelously clear moments of understanding that build out of the chaos of experience. Even in the second half of the book, where the stories have somewhat less coherence because they span a much larger stretch of time, Snyder hits the big landmarks–death, divorce, pregnancy, marriage–in crisp snapshots. The joy of reading a collection of linked stories is that those moments of understanding come frequently, and each story, while it builds on what has come before, gives the reader a satisfyingly rounded experience of a finishing a story well-crafted and well-told.
I could not put the book down, read it almost in a single sitting, and immediately went back to the beginning again to re-read the passages I had marked. I cannot recommend it highly enough and wish Carrie and her book all possible success.