Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Storyteller, a short story collection by Sherry Isaac, reviewed by Karen Kachra

Paperback, 212 pages, Publisher: In Our Words Inc., Toronto, July 2011

Sherry Isaac and her muse have been spending a lot of quality time together. The result is Storyteller: stories, an impressive and enjoyable collection of short fiction, and Isaac’s d├ębut book. Here we have classic storytelling a good hook, authentic characters, fruitful tension, unexpected plot twists, and the sort of resolution that is deeper and wider than a happy ending.

This collection has a commendable diversity of voices. Among them are impressionable young girls, elderly firebrands, one or two con artists, a dying streetperson, an anxious would-be groom, and a storyteller haunted by his past.

Many of the stories, such as “What you Wish For,” “A Pickpocket in Paris,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Nana’s Farewell” are light reads that slip-slide you into the unexpected. Some read more like memoirs, others, snapshots of the human grotesque. (Though, depending on your family, these categories may blur.)

In Storyteller, humour is abundant and charming. As when pickpocket Abby finally meets her match: “She was accustomed to improvising but she’d never encountered a Greek god before.” Or in the hilarious account of Christmas morning 1976, when Mallory tells us Mom is notorious for “buying hideous clothes…and an itchy lace bra big enough to support coconuts when all I had were limes, with matching panties that would fit Shamu.”

Sometimes the story itself is the funniest bit. I laughed out loud at the shenanigans in “Mount Baker.” Who hasn’t over-thought and been over-wrought while making their way through customs and immigration?

Isaac is a writer’s writer, by which I mean she takes care choosing words, her images are well-drawn, her dialogue faithful. As every good writer does, she convinces us through the apt use of detail, and she is meticulous in this. Consider the description of a missing toque in “Taking Care of Auntie”: “It was Pepto-Bismol pink, with a broad white strip along the bottom and a generous pompom.”

I believe Isaac’s writing shines even brighter when she tackles serious topics and themes. “Where Credit is Due” is a sensitive treatment of a young mother struggling to be a good daughter to her own mother, a selfish alcoholic. Isaac wisely resists the pitfall of overwriting this emotional drama, the result being a touching portrait of narrator Diana as well as fresh insights on worn topics like poverty and self-esteem.

“Storyteller,” the title short, is in my opinion the hands-down best contribution of the book. Isaac creates a poignant conflict within the main character Alistair, a Victorian-era busker who struggles with the tragic death of his sister by recreating a life for her in the tall tales that he sells to street corner audiences. Alistair muses, “There is a freedom in telling tales to folks who’d never been anywhere they could not contradict him. And what harm did it do, to entertain them with a fable or two that might brighten their dreary lives?”

Uniquely, Isaac probes the effects of storytelling on the teller. “Storyteller” is also, more simply, a poetic exploration of loss. “He came across the devastation of the west harbour the same way some men come across love, without warning.”

I suspect that Isaac, like Alistair, feels “a freedom in telling tales.” Her readers are certainly likely to be entertained. And more.

Storyteller is available through Sherry Isaac's website here and through other on-line venues.

Karen Kachra has a background in philosophy. She has published various and sundry works of short fiction and nonfiction, some of them award-winning, and she is hard at work on a novel-length manuscript. She writes poetry in the spare part of her spare time. Her website features her running commentary on the craft of writing. You can read another of Karen's book reviews here.

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