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Engel, Marian.

Markham (Ont.), Penguin, c1985. 192pp, paper, $6.95, ISBN 0-14-008115-1. CIP

Grades 12 and up
Reviewed by Barbara J. Graham

Volume 14 Number 1
1986 January

The recent death of Marian Engel, a distinguished writer of fiction leaves a significant gap in the Canadian literary landscape. This posthumous collection of sixteen short stories is a necessary addition to Canadian literature collections: however, because of the general nature of the subject matter, there will be limited popular appeal for high school students.

Both Findley's preface and Engel's own introduction, "an instant war memorial," complement the stories that follow. Engel's revelations are invaluable:

I have been made to believe in the irrational, the area where, when the skin of logic has been pulled back, anything can happen.

Reality brings out the worst in me. I have tried and failed to lead a conventional life.

What I have to deal wild is super-reality, that element in everyday life where the surreal shows itself without turning French on us.

More and more the irrational, the magical impulse, dominates my work.

Armed with Engel's own insights, the reader is prepared for the extraordinary in the ordinary and is not disappointed. Seeing life from this viewpoint is a means for survival in a world that is not always kind to the middle-aged and lonely. Seeing the ridiculous in a moment of tragedy allows one to be more objective about one's own small miseries. And so, the reader moves through islands of human separateness, empathizing with characters who are brave and able to cope, albeit sometimes strangely.

Engel examines the lives of ordinary people, mostly women, under stress and explores their uniqueness with sensitivity and humour. The stories have definite thematic links that give a richness to the collection when examined as a whole. All her characters are looking for affection, love, and human connections. Courage takes a bizarre turn in the title story. At forty-two years of age, the protagonist discovers that her husband no longer loves or needs her. He has a new, younger love. Because "experience must show" Vie begins to carve tattoos on her body until she realizes she was only asking for sympathy which he could not give. Money seems a satisfactory alternative. In a poignant story verging on the autobiographical, Mary Abbott finds that the "cloud of pink and white unreality" of an apple tree in blossom gives spiritual sustenance as she copes with a difficult aging mother and the aloneness that a diagnosis of cancer brings.

Of the sixteen tales, six have been previously unpublished. Although the tone differs, the themes remain fairly constant. There is always the separation, and the cancer that was consuming Engel is a significant subject. Two Stories concern unbalanced people who need to be protected from their imaginations. She has questions to ask about happiness and the importance of childhood memories in our adult lives. Marian Engel's openness and vulnerability as she examines the human psyche that is everyone's, and yet uniquely her own, make the reading of this final body of her work paradoxically painful and satisfying.

Barbara J. Graham, London Board of Education, London, Ont.
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