Fiction Review by Michael Kenyon

Frances Boyle, Seeking Shade (Erin: Porcupine's Quill, 2020). Paperbound, 176 pp., $18.95.

Seeking ShadeThemes of love and survival run through this collection. There are love stories set in Canadian locations, at various times during the twentieth century. There is a story set in the future, in which a kind of travelling nursemaid is hired to care for a genetically‐created girl who will never age beyond childhood. It’s very difficult to write these days without seeing through the lens of COVID-19. So, poems, novels, stories, reviews—how are they to be written, and how will they comport themselves when published? Survival turns into escape, perhaps? What better than a love story? We turn off the news and pick up a book. Most likely it will be a book published before the pandemic, almost certainly it will be a book not about the pandemic. And yet.

Frances Boyle is a busy poet and fiction writer, “living and wellsettled in Ottawa,” who has published in the last four years a novella, a book of poetry, and this story collection. She has a standard poodle, has worked in corporate law, and is on the editorial board of Arc Magazine.

The collection opens with the shortest piece in the book. “Two‐Tone” is told in present tense from the second‐person point of view: “You are thinking about an oil painting. It is modest in scale.” In less than a page and a half, Boyle engages us, through a steady descriptive voice, in the things of a remembered world. As well as the painting there’s a black-and-white photograph; both are on a ledge in the grown-up brother’s room and feature a 1958 Pathfinder, two‐tone. As we read on, we are
taken into a suburb full of yearning: that of a mother for her son, “the precious boy;” of the boy’s sister (the narrator) for her mother. The brother’s room is empty of people; all happens in recollection, of a room, a painting, a photograph. All happens, finally, on the last page, and it is striking that, as it is with memory, all is uncertain. Words are not thinking, thinking is not the painting, the painting is not the photograph. And where, indeed, is the brother? It is a terrific piece and a great introduction to what will come. This is a collection of distances—between people, between town and city, between our sense of what the world is and what it turns out to be. Here characters are struggling, often in the dark, to evolve, to remember, and to act well.

Boyle uses physical detail and locale to excellent effect; she handles relationships with economy and wit, and her narrators are restless in their search for what’s next as they zoom along through time.

In the title story, Judith harries her small children in an attempt to escape a controlling husband who is just now on a plane to Calgary; because of needing to perform the daily tasks this impeccable man sets out, she misses her train and then the bus, and finds herself seeking safety, kids in hand, imagining “Tom with binoculars scanning the streets below through the rounded window; Tom getting the pilot to make the airplane bank and descend; Tom reaching through the hatchway door to grab her.” The shade she seeks is elusive: “…there were no trees yet in this new suburb that was still almost bald prairie. She couldn’t find refuge in any of the houses […] everything was open: spindly trees tied to stakes, newly planted lawns tied off with strings and hissing with weakly turning sprinklers.” Her fear response is conditioned, not paranoia; we know why she needs to protect herself and her children; but because Boyle intersperses Judith’s narration with the parallel first-person narration of Celia, her eldest child who loves her father, we are moment by moment unsure of everything. Judith’s flight is entirely reasonable, yet she is acting out of reason. Here is the perfect illustration of the subtleties and fragilities of the human endeavour. A mother and two daughters are on the run; the mother is beside herself; the children do not understand. Writ large this story points at culture itself, where vulnerable populations are forced from their homes. The garden as refuge; the garden as refugee camp. Efforts at sanctuary, ultimately unsafe. But the children, Pammy and Celia, do not know any of this yet. At the crushing but almost inevitable end, they are pleased to see their father, happy to be going home.

I could riff in a similar way on any one of these well‐crafted stories. Boyle writes carefully and with wisdom about ordinary people in ordinary situations—a man with bad lungs in a sanatorium, a high school girl with a crush on an older man cutting herself, a young woman on the cusp of university discovering her own racism, a family of friends finding out who they are in a one‐room cabin on a remote lake.

About the writing I have one quibble. Ten of the 14 stories are third-person accounts. Whereas the first‐person and second‐person stories flow with ease, the stories told from a third‐person limited point of view use the protagonist’s name over and over, rather than the pronoun. This clutters the page and simply breaks the narrative spell. It’s a shame this wasn’t caught in the edit.

“Fairy Tales for Survivors” completes the collection with these words: “A spot of blood falls on the pressed white table‐runner. I cough, clear my throat, begin.” And this short paragraph takes us back to the beginning of Seeking Shade, wakes us into appreciation for where we’ve been, and into a meditation on story and art making. What are we all looking for? Survival and love, yes. And there are so many versions of love and survival. As with Boccaccio’s Decameron, this book now can be read as a collection of stories told one per night during a plague while waiting for dawn.


—Michael Kenyon

As in The Malahat Review, 215, summer 2021