But these children feel apart from the others around them, as though their relationships with other people are less meaningful than the relationships others seem to have (or, amount to less than they’ve dreamed of).
There’s an emotional truth to these stories which makes the age of the characters just another detail. (Because there can be so many kinds of loneliness: the kind in My Heart is Broken, that in An Unmarried Man’s Summer, and that in Varieties of Exile.)
And, yet, simultaneously, the fact that “An Emergency Case” is told from the child’s perspective is also everything. The story turns on what readers understand to be true about Oliver’s situation and what Oliver understands to be true.
“The hospital was in Geneva; that much Oliver knew.”
Most of what he knows, is what is shared with him by the doctor. There is a sense that this is (at least partly) because the nursing staff is not trusted with being able to determine what is and is not helpful for Oliver to understand while he is recovering from the accident.
But, as you will have guessed, if you have ever cared for someone whose incapacity has caused them stress and worry (about what’s happening, what did happen, what will happen next), the care-giving is a much broader responsibility than the transference of information. The doctor is not present all the day (though he does visit daily for a short time) and the nurses must manage Oliver’s confusion and uncertainty (and, eventually, rage) while the doctor is elsewhere.
There is also, as frequently occurs with Gallant’s characters, a question about what is relayed in English and what in French. When, in time, Oliver gets a roommate in the “emergency case” room, there is yet another dilemma about what to share and what to leave unspoken,
This is something one can say about storytellers, too. How different a story would this have been if Oliver comprehended from the start what had happened in the accident? If he could have imagined his future more specifically and realistically?
Mavis Gallant leaves the truth misunderstood, only half-explained (talk of heaven is not the same thing as one’s parents being dead) for Oliver, but shares with readers.
As a character, Oliver’s roommate is as fully realized as he. Partly because Oliver asks for a few sentences of biography. More because of small gestures and kindnesses (or, at least, interest) between the two.
And, as in the last story, “In Italy”, the dialogue is succinct and purposeful. Both from the perspective of the story (one can easily believe that these are the very things which would be discussed) and also from the perspective of a storyteller (every detail selected to build credibility and to build character).
There is a sense that this story is still playing out off-stage. How I would like to have a glimpse of Oliver’s later years.
In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the third story in In Transit. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Jeux d’Ete”.