October 13th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *Real Life* by Sharon Butala

Real Life by Sharon Butala is the 10th book I’ve read for the Off the Shelf reading challenge. Like many books on this list, I read it because it was starting to get embarrassing that I hadn’t. Not so much the specific book as the author: Butala has a strong reputation as a serious writer, for “writ[ing] with scrupulous honesty and without a lick of pretension.” (so says *Books in Canada*)

She does and, though I had some serious problems with the book, I too am in awe of Butala’s subtle, wry, taut prose. I felt the best story in the collection was “Light.” The story is about Lucia, a fairly average middle-aged woman who leaves her city, her home, and her husband to stay with her developmentally delayed, polio-crippled sister during her–probably final–struggle with cancer. During their time together, she cares for Elaine matter-of-factly, with no obvious tenderness but a great deal of love. Nevertheless, the gap between their lives and their minds is so great that there is little connection, almost no dialogue.

At home, her husband George misses her, but tries to support her in her task. He’s a professor, and lends her books to help pass the long hours of vigilance, but balks when she asks him for books about the Holocaust. He gives in almost immediately, though, and eventually explains to her the difference between the Holocaust narratives she’s reading, and the ones he suggests: “‘Those books will tell you the story…[b]ut none of them are works of art, and they have in common a failure to express the full scope of what happened…The books on this list will help you…’ he hesitated ‘come to terms,’ he added finally, shrugging, as if such a thing were hardly possible.”

And that’s the crux of the story–the inevitably failed struggle to understand true suffering from the outside. Lucia never really understands Elaine’s feelings, and through the story seems to move towards the knowledge that she can’t. “Now Lucia can’t bring herself to try to talk to Elaine about her impending death, and she hates herself for her desire, which she can no longer deny, that Elaine should give up this fight she can’t win.”

Empathy is so hard, is what I think this story is really about, and the more obvious where we should place our sympathies–those who suffered and died at the hands of Nazis, Elaine who was dealt a bad genetic hand thrice over–the more distance we have to cross to do so. That’s how I read the story, anyway, and also gorgeous evocation of love in all it’s horrible imperfection.

Though I enjoyed the rest of the book–the other 9 stories–a good deal, in a way “Light” points up some of the things I found troublesome in the others. Because Elaine is so delayed, illiterate, and often struggling to breathe, the lack of dialogue in that story is appropriate, and serves to emphasize the loneliness of dying. However, almost all the stories in the collection are grounded in the interior monologue of a single character, and this works sometimes better than others. In “Night Class,” Christine spends a great deal of time alone, driving to a far-off university outpost, but even before she takes the job she is so deeply ensconced in her own–admittedly persuasive–viewpoint that she neglects others with almost unforgivable ease. That story makes perfect sense in terms of POV, however excruciating it actually is to read (very, but that’s an achievement, too).

However, if I were the sort of person who put down books unfinished, I might’ve done it after the first and title story, concerning a woman whose ex husband suddenly reappears decades after their divorce. You find, extremely gradually, that there was a complex and heart-rending series of events at the root of their split. But this all comes out slow-fade memories from the much older woman, and I felt like we never get to hear anyone’s real feelings or motivations for what they did. I mean, I didn’t–I couldn’t put together from the tense and grim conversation in a coffee shop decades later where the connection between these people ever existed, much less what truly severed with it.

Lack of connection is what was truly problematic for me in this collection. Many of the stories were really single-character pieces, someone thinking through situations and insights alone in her own head. They might think *about* other people, but never actually engage with them. This worked when there was a true impediment to connection, as in “Light” or “Night Class;” people devastated by their inability to interact with other humans are much more relatable than characters like Jenna in “Saskatchewan,” who doesn’t seem to try. Jenna is a writer from a small town in the title province, “has a real cowboy for a husband,” writes semi-successful books for a publisher in Toronto, but dreams of more praise, a bigger readership, more than somewhat success.

The story concerns Jenna’s time on a literary prize jury–topical now as ever–and reads like autobiography. I say that not because the description of Jenna above almost exactly matches the bio on Sharon Butala’s webpage–that’s too simple. I think it’s autobiography because of how boring it is. There are no other developed characters besides Jenna, no meaningful relationships, no real sense of an adult life at all–just a single interior monologue and a single focus of interest. Despite the fact that the story takes place months after the adjudication (there are many retrospective stories in this book), it is Jenna’s only real focus other than her thwarted ambition. Her husband, her friends, her day-to-day life, whatever it is she actually writes about–all is elided from the story.

Which is exactly like how I feel reading memoir in which the memoirist wants to talk about one specific bit of her life while keeping the rest perfectly private–she constructs a false wall around the experience being focussed on. It ends up being an empty experience, at least for me. I didn’t care about cranky Jenna and her interior monologue, and if the story was some kind of story a clef I couldn’t guess what real event it was based on. Anyone know? The book came out in 2002, so prior to that. I certainly couldn’t understand or imagine the experience of the locked jury–we get no dialogue or sense of the characters of the other jurors, nor of the scorned author. The end of the story seemed to be trying to unlock some of the mystery, but I couldn’t parse it. Maybe it’s me?

What I’m saying is that Butala is extremely good, but her blindspots are substantial, and so are mine, and they are exactly at odds. A lot of the stories in this book were in the “not my thing” category, but the pieces that cracked through were utterly sublime.

6 Responses to “Rose-coloured reviews *Real Life* by Sharon Butala”

  • Kerry says:

    Reading Butala’s work (memoir, novels, short stories, journalism), the same themes, even the same SCENES are revisted over and over. In a way, her work as a whole is more interesting to consider than her invididual pieces for this reason (and others…)

  • Rebecca says:

    Actually, someone else mentioned that it was more interesting to work over the long term, too! I’ll try to work up to reading more–I admire the work, but I feel she’s an authoer i have to brace myself for.

  • Rebecca says:

    Actually, someone else mentioned that it was more interesting over the long term, too! I’ll try to work up to reading more–I admire the work, but I feel she’s an authoer i have to brace myself for.

  • Maria Flaherty says:

    just read “the girl from saskatchewan”
    Excellent and thrilling.
    I believe a co-worker, nurse, was responsible for the murder, was drug related.More than one person were involved.
    Sharon did enourmous work gathering all info and articulate it all excellently in her book.

  • Maria Flaherty says:

    I just read “the girl from Saskatoon”.
    See above.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks for your comment, Maria! I have heard many good things about *The Girl from Saskatoon*–I’ve got to put it on my to-read list!

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