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Burns, Mary.

CIRCLE. Moonbeam (Ont.), Penumbra Press, c1986. 158pp, paper, $9.95, ISBN 0-920806-79-1.

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Susan Ratcliffe

Volume 14 Number 5
1986 September

The shadows of men on a curtain, creases on a distant face, daily habits, sounds of various car motors; these are the details from which Mary Burns writes the intriguing story, "The Men on my Window." In it the narrator is so much the observer that she retreats into the basement when the plot and characters threaten to invade her territory. She observes not just the sensational aspects of the dreadful childhood, the murder, the kidnapping, and the capture of the Indian boy, but also the nuances of the relations between the people involved in it.

This is the particular strength of these stories set in northern settlements; the steady dripping of daily life and its fight to survive on the impenetrable, imperturbable ground of the world near the Arctic Circle. An Indian dies on the side of the road one cold night and his death exposes the pain and prejudice of the Indians and whites of the community; a fragile bride gradually retreats from the reality of the cold isolation of her husband's absence, until she is found writing her name on the wall in chocolate pudding. These stories and others clearly describe the North in terms of its effects on people.

Aside from the fascination of the plots and the emotions of the characters, the techniques of the stories are compelling. "A Joint Communique" is one of the best. It uses a dual point of view; "the story is as much mine as hers and certain things must be understood." The two narrators tell the harsh story of Daisy, an Indian woman, her drunkenness, her broken marriage, and her suicide, and simultaneously imply their own story and snipe at each other as storytellers as well. "Ruth underrates herself and leaves too much to the imagination. She neglected to explain why it was. . ." It is a complex, but involving narrative style.

The last story, "The Circle," seems to summarize the themes of the collection. David, subject to ringing and voices in his ears and visions in his head, travels to the threshold of the Arctic Circle, "a special place on our planet. It borders on the pole where magnetic forces are concentrated..." He aims for the circle, wanting to "join them and his voice would rise with theirs in the song of the aurora. This was his simple desire, to be part of the circle of those who had gone before him." In this collection, Burns draws us into the circle to involve us in the lives of those who lived there. Any reader quickly learns much about the psychological effect of the North and its society. All readers soon appreciate the subtlety and beauty of her "song of the aurora."

Susan Ratcliffe, Centennial C.V.I., Guelph, Ont.
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