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Story collection boasts universal motifs

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In Shaena Lambert's second short story collection, the Vancouver luminary of literary fiction relentlessly pokes at our foibles and peels back, uncomfortably, what's real.

Lambert's exquisite prose and masterful story structure leaven the heavy content. Simply put, this volume's good (superb, actually) and good for you.

Six of the 10 stories were published previously, including three in the most recent editions of the annual Best Canadian Stories anthology.

This would be the one weakness of the collection -- that it doesn't feature more new work. The good news (and sad reality for literary publications) is that many readers won't have encountered the re-issued stories before.

Oh, My Darling follows Lambert's 2007 novel, Radiance. Her first story collection, The Falling Woman, appeared in 2002.

The stories here centre on relationships of family and friends, usually from a woman's point of view. Most are set in B.C. Recurrent, unifying themes are aging, compromise, loyalty, love, infidelity and revenge. These are universal motifs. However, the stories might appeal most to baby boomers given the vintage of the characters.

The collection takes its title from the creepy opening story told by a pompous, mocking narrator that, we learn, is an invasive lobular carcinoma on the protagonist's breast. ("And if you please, I consider myself much too dark, much too personal to be described as a mere 'lump.' I prefer boutonniere of death.")

The lump taunts the middle-aged schoolteacher when she discovers it: "Oh, my darling! Your eyes. As though you know what is coming, what reserves it will take."

Lambert likens this cancer to a circus ringmaster, and survival to a high wire: "I will balance you on a razor. I will dance you across a rope so thin you will have vertigo."

In the parallel closing story, In Delphi, Lambert expresses our fragility as shadows cast on a Greek valley: "The shadow of every cypress tree was picked out shrewdly, as though to say, there is life and there is death, and look how closely they lie together in this landscape."

The story's protagonist, a Canadian tourist, is unaware of the cancer she'll soon be confronting when she poses her question to the notional oracle at the temple of Apollo: "How can I feel this dance, this dance of life and death, at my core?"

This is the question that lies at the heart of all 10 stories as characters are stirred to transcend numbness and grasp life.

In Crow Ride, a mother struggling with her teenage son's death involves herself with a strange young man. In The Coffin Story, an old man engages his relatives in the conundrum of how his coffin will be carried down a tight stairwell.

In Clams, a retired lawyer attends a seniors' home to visit a lover from his youth. ("Solitary figures in wheelchairs had been set out here and there, deployed... like chess pieces.") Angered by her reaction to him, he plots his next move.

The story The Wind absolutely shocks. It echoes strains of Margaret Atwood's short story Death by Landscape (in Wilderness Tips).

Lambert studied with Atwood and shares the same sophistication of narrative, slipping effortlessly into flashbacks, teasing with foreshadowing and -- especially effectively -- leaping into the future of a tale by relating what the character will do. A delicious example is in The Cage, where a wife considers her husband's many infidelities the moment he's relying on her assistance.

Back to the closing story when the tourist's husband asks, "So you're happy with your question?" She answers, "Ecstatic."

So is the reader.

Gail Perry is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 A1

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