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Conversational manner enhances debut collection

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Castles in the Air

By Mary Hagey

Signature Editions, 221 pages, $20

READING Mary Hagey's thoroughly enjoyable debut collection of short stories is much like having a long conversation with a good friend over coffee, delving into and sharing the ups and downs of life and the problems we all grapple with daily.

Now based in Ottawa, Hagey grew up in southern Ontario but spent much of her life in Montreal where many of these stories take place.

Most of the main characters in this collection of 11 stories (published by the Winnipeg literary house Signature Editions) are women. They are women we can relate to, who seem real, familiar and above all human.

Hagey's characters also have depth, and it is in the slow unfolding of conversation that the nuances of her characters are revealed in all their rich complexity.

Many are struggling and must work their way through difficulties such as cancer, troubled marriages, unfaithful spouses, losses or secrets involving children long ago given up for adoption.

Often a truth emerges or a secret is unearthed that forces the protagonist to have to come to terms with it. Usually it is the connections the characters forge, the moments of sharing with others that leads them from despair. Sometimes it is the realization that they must, in the end, care for themselves that saves the day.

In Modern Women, a lonely elderly widow connects with a much younger woman after struggling to climb three flights of stairs to deliver a letter mistakenly sent to her apartment.

Her kindness results in an invitation to tea, and soon the young girl unexpectedly and tearfully confides in the woman that she is thinking of leaving her boyfriend. The older woman is reminded of her own youth, when she was forced to give up a child she'd had at the age of 17.

Nothing momentous happens here, but in the conversation, connections are made between two people who once were strangers, and problems and buried secrets surface demanding to be reckoned with.

In A Simple Request, Karen travels to Halifax to meet up with her fastidious and finicky Aunt Pru hoping to convince her to return to Toronto with her to visit with Karen's mother, who has cancer and is dying.

But Pru hasn't spoken to Lily in over a year and also suffers from phobias about travelling. She refuses to go. The unusual and unexpected ending to the story results in Karen realizing that although she is disappointed in her aunt she has indisputable bonds with her and cares about her still.

Tooth and Nail is perhaps the most entertaining and suspenseful of the stories. It revolves around 46-year-old Claire, a caregiver and travel companion to Albert, who is wealthy, elderly and a bit of a womanizer. While in Florida, at the beach, they literally bump into her married dentist, an odd, sinister sort of fellow. He is walking hand in hand with his dental assistant.

The events that unfold once Claire returns to her home in Montreal and pays a visit to her dentist will have readers thinking twice before subjecting themselves to serious root canal work.

Castles in the Air, the title story, explores the relationship between Phil, a timid daydreamer who has lost his job, and his relentlessly critical, money-hungry wife. When his mother's new boyfriend appears on the scene, the entire family is uprooted from its normal way of life. Unlike the other stories this one seems unresolved and less than clear in the end.

Hagey writes in a clear, almost familiar, conversational manner that draws the reader easily into engaging tales that are ultimately well worth the read.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 J9

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