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The Juliet Stories

Reviewed by Margaret Frederickson

In Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories, recently shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award, the eponymous protagonist provides the character development a reader might expect from a Victorian novel. Yet in these eighteen linked short stories, divided into two equal parts, a Juliet emerges who is not the Juliet “Doomed to star-crossed love.”

Still just nine years old when her family transplants her to Nicaragua in 1984, Juliet Friesen finds in the chaos of a country in upheaval a freedom that is like “ going invisible by choice,like hiding in the underbrush to spy , to explore,  to play untroubled.”  And so she does, in spite of the torture  she knows about, the poverty she sees around her, the adult rumblings of infidelities and secrets.

Juliet does not want to leave when her younger brother Keith gets cancer, forcing a sudden flight to Canada, to Oma Friesen’s place in Ontario. In fact, father Bram does not return with the rest the rest of  the family, choosing peace-activism over family duty.

“Amulets,” the last and title story in Part One, builds a bridge between Nicaragua and Canada, which is the geographical setting of almost all of Part Two, called “Disruptions.” This story amazes, a small masterpiece in its construction and use of language. Snyder does what Elmore Leonard calls for in his Rules of Writing: She leaves out all the parts that sound like “writerly bits.” The prose is vivid and lean, as she begins, “Seven of them are travelling towards the Honduran border over mined roads in a white jeep.”

Keith’s illness is is foreshadowed when  “Sister Mary grace held Juliet’s brother’s clammy head.”The reader feels the family’s terror when they are threatened and have their supplies and vehicle stolen by the Contra, yet Juliet doesn’t want to leave. The strong sibling bond, the first part of “Amulets” concludes,  strikes a “spell that binds them, brother and sister, in this house lit by flames…”

At the leave-taking from Bram, just enough of the scenery is sketched in: “Out the windows are coconut palms and broken concrete and trucks painted military green and soldiers smoking cigarettes.” The last page of “Amulets,” with the fractured,  sick family in the plane hurtling through the dark brought this reader to tears.

The second part of the book, ‘Disruptions,” haunts, with its dealings of a family split by geography, by childhood cancer, and by secrets left behind in Nicaragua. At the very beginning of Part Two, Oma Elizabeth Friesen draws our attention tot the importance of names: she has come to believe  “a name is a fortune, a  gift from parent to child.” Her son Bram has rejected the role of stable family man that being called Abraham implies, and has “risen above” his name.

Gloria and Emmanuel both carry names that are Biblical in overtone, as does new husband Jesse. Apart from these instances, though, Snyder treats the Biblical allusions with a light hand preferring strong verbs and nouns to embellished language.

Snyder writes with a taut precision that builds the emotional intensity of each story; then, each piece contributes to the narrative whole so that the reader witnesses the maturation of Juliet from pre-pubescent child through to pregnant mother of two who will always carry the secrets and wonders of Nicaragua with her.

MARGARET FREDERICKSON

Margaret is my older sister. She was a professional and a deep reader long before the terms were bandied about the blogosphere. She has a photographic memory of her reading, feeding her understanding of what makes a successful novel.  She has taught just about every junior high and high school English text used in Canada at one point or another. She will be a regular contributor, and I will read the books she reads and reviews and compare notes. She is also a member of the Redrooffs Readers Book Club, and will keep us posted about what’s happening there. The R2 reading list for the year is up on the Reading Page where Redrooffs book club commentary will appear regularly.  She lives on Redrooffs Road in Half Moon Bay on the Sunshine Coast near Sechelt.  You may be meeting my brother later.

 

 

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