Family Secrets

Tarry This Night

By 
Kristyn Dunnion
Arsenal Pulp Press, 258 pages, $16.95
2017
Reviewed by 
Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt

In a world not unimaginably different from our own, members of a religious cult wait out a civil war in an underground bunker. Tarry This Night, Kristyn Dunnion’s second novel, is an unsettling tale told in turns by five members of the Family, including Father Ernst, the sect’s once-charismatic polygamist leader. Set in a not-so-distant future and broaching many of the themes currently in the news—political polarization, nuclear warfare, gender inequity, religious extremism, climate change—this carefully crafted, suspenseful novel is a reminder of just how awful things could get if we don’t get our act together.  

Tarry This Night is a study in tunnel vision—or rather, bunker vision. In the dim, dank shelter, the Family is literally and figuratively in the dark as they await the “Ascension.” The narrators share a limited understanding of themselves, their fellow inhabitants, goings-on “topside,” and the doctrine they purport to follow. Reverent and dutiful Cousin Ruth pines for her brother, oblivious to his feelings for another Family member. The curmudgeonly Mother Susan disavows “hussies,” but succumbs to her own private desires in the dead of night. For Mother Rebekah, hopelessness becomes a kind of tunnel vision that leads her to take devastating action. Here, the use of several third-person narrators has disparate effects; while the reader has the advantage of more than one perspective, Dunnion’s restrained hand invokes the feeling that we’re never being told everything. Indeed, the Family’s role in causing the above-ground conflict is lightly sketched, and never explained in full, which might have detracted from the present-tense action. 

This restraint pays off in the second half of the novel, as a macabre turn of events leads to an awareness the characters have been missing. Among the narrators, Cousin Ruth and Mother Susan undergo drastic but believable transformations, driving the interrelated narratives to their singular climax. 

Dunnion is at the height of her powers when describing matters of the flesh: blood is “metallic heat,” burn wounds “pussed and frothed,” Rebekah’s wrists are “delicate bird bones.” Father Ernst is physically repulsive, with his unwashed skin, “pouchy eye,” and moustache, which “parts to yellow teeth.” If this novel has a single failing, it’s that it’s too short. I would have liked to inhabit Dunnion’s chillingly drawn world a little bit longer, especially toward the end. But unlike her characters, who must wait for the Ascension in darkness, Dunnion never tarries, making for a fast and consuming read. 

Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt is a Montreal-based writer and translator whose work has appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, Matrix, Room, carte blanche, and elsewhere. Her story “Resurfacing” was shortlisted for the 2017 Carter V. Cooper short fiction prize. Visit her at carlyrosalie.com and follow her @carlyrosalie.

Letters to My Father

Bänoo Zan, Letters to My Father
By 
Bänoo Zan
Piquant Press, 41 pages, $18.50
2017
Reviewed by 
Nadia Siu Van

Bänoo Zan’s second book of poetry, Letters to My Father, opens with her rationale for seeking refuge in poetry, and fleeing from stories. “Stories distort the truth by virtue of their claim to facts. It is only when stories have exhausted themselves that poetry happens,” she writes. The poems, which are dedicated to and about her father, explore Zan’s search for reconciliation after learning about his death in 2012. Zan didn’t attend her father’s funeral or several memorial services in Iran, but he soon became the muse for this deeply personal collection.

While Zan and her father may have been separated by borders and continents, her poetry resists being broken up by descriptive titles or section dividers. The poems, which are simply numbered one through forty-one, flow seamlessly from one to the next without the narrative constraints of a story, all while achieving continuity and masterfully weaving together imagery from both locales. From tragedies and epics to ghazal and qasidas—which are Arabic words for poetic forms—Zan skillfully alludes to the Greek philosopher, Socrates, in the same breath as Mansūr al-Hallāj, a Persian mystic and poet. Time and geography are intertwined, where Zan refers to her father as the country she left, a “land of conflicts / unexplored,” in which she is still very much a citizen.

Despite being a poet with a facility for language, the overwhelming silence that Zan describes between daughter and father sits at the heart of their struggle for familial communication. “Your loss / is the absence of words / and there is no love / where there are no words,” she laments. These conflicted feelings can be traced through every single poem, where silence in life and death is a barrier to reconciliation. “Silence was our language,” Zan writes, where his “lips guarded [his] heart”, and his voice was a “silent kiss.” His death was but a “rehearsal for life,” where a daughter finds herself caught in a war that “doesn’t end / with the end of life” and must now learn to live after loss. While he is free from “life, love / pain and faith,” she must walk the earth bearing the weight of grief.

The most emotional use of language comes in one of the final poems, where Zan slips from using “Baba,” the Persian term for father, to a single utterance of “Dad.” Toward the end of the collection, the poet mourns the silence that defined this daughter-father relationship: “Love made us cowards / with more pauses than words.” Zan mentions that she decided not to use her introductory remarks as a confessional, and it’s easy to see why—her poems reveal far more. If stories distort the truth because of their claim to facts, as Zan says, and poetry allows us to write our own stories, then the poet’s truths lie somewhere within these lines—look for them.

Nadia Siu Van is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She is currently the reviews editor at Shameless magazine.

Children Shouldn’t Use Knives and Other Tales

Children Shouldn’t Use Knives and Other Tales
By 
Shirley Camia with illustrations by Cindy Mochizuki
Bay Press, 64 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by 
Adèle Barclay

I’m not nostalgic for childhood. Childhood was terrifying—the lack of agency, the grownup world’s opaque set of rules, the playground’s ferocious pecking order, the fear of real and imaginary things. And so I’m grateful that Shirley Camia’s Children Shouldn’t Use Knives and Other Tales shreds the yellow ribbons of childhood sentimentality and, instead, offers an exploration of what it feels like to be small and vulnerable in a stormy world. 

Children Shouldn’t Use Knives is a collection that integrates moody poetic fragments by Camia with elusive sketches of telescopes, book stacks, flower garlands, and children draped behind blankets by Cindy Mochizuki. Quotations from nursery rhymes and beloved children’s authors—including Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, Judy Blume and so on—open each of the eleven sections, anchoring Camia’s work with familiar wisdom that illuminates the ominous facets of youth. Camia’s original poems and Mochizuki’s complementary illustrations conspire with the famous authors’ quotations to create a shadowy, dreamy atmosphere. 

Children Shouldn’t Use Knives acknowledges the dangers and threats that haunt children beyond the realms of nightmares and classic scary fairy tales. For example, “In the Spring” does away with stereotypical optimistic associations with the season: 

what defences
does a young
girl have

as anger
barrels down

the muzzle of a gun 

Mochizuki’s illustration of a young child kneeling and holding an unidentifiable implement takes on a dark valence to accompany Camia’s brusque poem. 

Similarly, “Life’s Lessons” evokes with a few short lines a difficult story about a child lying about the whereabouts of her uncle: 

No, I don’t know where he is.

what she said
to the men
at the door 

Camia peddles in subtle ambiances rather than ornate descriptions and so the slight poems tremble while casting long and enigmatic silhouettes—the collection is a shadow puppet show where small hand gestures become animated monsters. While Children Shouldn’t Use Knives recalls Edward Gorey’s Victorian-inspired gothic The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Camia’s playground of lost children is softer and more modern. 

With only eleven brief poems, the collection is very short. While I appreciated Camia’s invocation of well-known children’s literary authors who don’t shy away from the confusion and trouble of childhood, I did find the extracts drowned out Camia’s own voice at times—they were often as long as the poems themselves. I found I wanted a few more poetic moods from Camia. I wanted to inhabit her and Mochizuki’s beautiful, sombre world for a few more beats—just like when I was a child and I couldn’t stand having a story come to an end. 

Adèle Barclay’s debut poetry collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You (Nightwood, 2016), won the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. She is an editor for Rahila’s Ghost Press and the 2017 Critic-in-Residence for Canadian Women in Literary Arts. She teaches at UBC.

The Pool

Christine was charming and friendly, but I had begun to dislike her with a fiery intensity months before. It was visceral, and I couldn’t quite understand it. My disdain flustered her; I could see it in her eyes when they met mine. I had unmasked her. She thought I knew.

Scaachi Koul: On Writing About Family and Trying to Keep Secrets

Scaachi Koul

Covering everything from the state of Canadian media to adult summer camps to racist marketing in the beauty industry, Koul’s writing is as thoughtful as it is funny. Her first book, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter (Doubleday, 2017), is a sharp and poignant essay collection that covers family, friendship, racism, immigration, rape culture, and online harassment. In the following interview, Koul speaks to Room about writing her first book, keeping family secrets, and why representation matters.

Fainting Couch Feminists Episode 5: Family Secrets (Part 2)

Do we ever really know our parents? Do we even want to? These are just some of the questions author Gurjinder Basran (Everything Was Goodbye, Someone You Love is Gone) tackles with host Mica Lemiski on Part 2 of our Family Secrets episode of Fainting Couch Feminists. Also included in this episode: a dove flies into Mica's window, Gurjinder reveals her past as a nosey child and discusses the importance of grieving on your own terms.

Family Secrets: An Interview with Rachel Thompson

Rachel Thompson is the founder of Lit Mag Love, an online course that supports writers in their efforts to submit to literary magazines, the former managing editor of Room, and a current member of the editorial board. She will edit our March 2018 issue, "Family Secrets," which is open to submissions until July 31, 2017. Assistant editor Arielle Spence asked Rachel a few questions about the nature of secret-sharing, her own family secrets, and what she looks for in a submission.

Currently on Newsstands

  • Queer Issue
    Room 41.3, Queer
    Edited by Leah Golob

    In this issue:

    Adèle Barclay, Joelle Barron, Nicole Breit, Mary Chen, Lucas Crawford, Jen Currin, Pamela Dodds, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Jess Goldman, hannah harris-sutro, Leah Horlick, Sam Jowett, Ness Lee, Annick MacAskill, Alessandra Naccarato, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Marika Prokosh, Amal Rana, Siobhan Roca Payne, Leah Sandals, Hana Shafi, Arielle Spence, Samantha Sternberg, Sanchari Sur, K.B. Thors, Corey Turner, Jackie Wykes

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