Weeks after reading these stories, a glance at the table of contents brings back their characters and arcs in a moment. (With “Flower Watching” and “Eskimos” I also required the aid of the characters’ names I’d noted.)
These stories stood out, not only as independent narratives but, simultaneously, for the connections between them; as with Bronwen Wallace and Margaret Atwood collections, not all tales intertwine, only some and not necessarily all in a row, as Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence have done).
The first story, also the title story, immediately grips the reader. Although a story rooted in stillness, there are jolts and jerks of motion which force the reader to sit upright.
This is highly appropriate given that the narrator’s existence is preoccupied with stillness. She has chronic health issues, because her spinal fluid is leaking and her brain has no suspension. A simple car ride holds the potential for excruciating pain, as the vehicle’s driver negotiates the bumps in the road.
The narrator is navigating with care and caution as well. Her life has been transformed by illness, and there is motion even in the stillness, as her body works to adapt and, hopefully, heal.
But there are bursts of intrusion with as she emerges tentatively into the outside world, and these force readers to readjust their expectations. For as small as the narrator’s world is currently, her existence is not solely defined by her illness.
This exchange between her and her mother reveals some of the themes which resurface elsewhere in the collection.
“‘You know they have some Israeli food there – labneh and zatar.’ [The mother says.]
‘It’s Persian food.’
‘Labneh is Israeli food.’
‘No, it’s Middle Eastern food. Israelis eat it because their country is in the Middle East.’
‘I grew up eating labneh.’
‘Yes, and if the Jewish state had set up shop in Sweden, you’d have grown up eating lingonberries.’”
Questions of identity, voice and belonging,relationships between daughters and mothers (and one notable step-mother), the meaning of home, the intricacy of treaties (personal and political agreements), gaps between understanding, and food: these make multiple appearances in different stories, so those readers who enjoy a tightly curated collection will likely find Chez L’Arabe quite satisfying.
Mireille Silcoff’s use of figurative language is deliberate and spare. The sky might be the colour of overlooked veal. Trouble might slide over someone like water over a rock. The leaves of stippled white birches might shimmer. But more often a story simply considers the hot and dry places in America or the contents of a shop carefully itemized. The style is matter-of-fact, measured and, on occasion, distanced. Readers are not invited to inhabit the narratives completely, but they are made comfortable in their seats on the margins.
Some favourite quotes:
That night she let Anne get under the covers with the book from the kitchen. In bed, Anne didn’t snuggle it like a teddy but arranged it open on her chest, as if her heart could absorb its pages. ‘I like it like this,’ Anne said as her stepmother turned out the bedside lamp. The book’s spine peaked over Anne’s small rib cage like the top of a little house. As long as it was there, Anne felt, there was nothing to be afraid of. (“Davina”)
If I had suffered an ever-widening gulf between me and my best destiny, I could now feel the gap coming together, almost by magnetic force. There are no meaningless coincidences, I thought. I had zero guilt about my pilfering. I was sure that everything that was happening – that had happened – was part of a pattern, that something was happening through me, and happening for a reason, and it felt enveloping enough to contain the whole Ojai night – the stars under my skin, the moon glowing from inside my rib cage. (“Appalachian Spring”)
“Even though the author was in North America doing readings and giving interviews, it felt almost cosmically coincidental that his voice would be in my kitchen that Sunday, as if the preoccupations of / my house and that of th world outside were finally on the same page.” (“Shalom Israel!”)
“Betrayal was a point of conversion, a crux, where the victim careens to clarity. That evening, Elsa went to sleep still a dupe. The following morning, she woke up knowing it.” (“Complimentarity”)
And, even though I recalled the final two stories only foggily, when I glanced at the TOC, the following passages brought the characters back sharply.
“I had a book that had built itself up in my mind as being some kind of portal. But now I’d spend mornings raking through the first drafts of first chapters, looking for a live coal, and every paragraph trailed into ash.” (“Flower Watching”)
“There are people who just add zero to the world, so fully impermeable are they in their skin, that barely anything goes in or out.” (“Eskimos”)
Contents: Chez l’arabe, Davina, Appalachian Spring, Champ de Mars, Shalom Israel!, Complimentarity, Flower Watching, Eskimos