Reviewed by Carmen Gindi
The Shadows We Mistake For Love. Douglas & McIntyre, 2015.
Tom Wayman’s short stories are as Canadian as Updike’s “A&P” is American. The setting and the workplace are central to each story line. All fourteen short stories (including a novella that gives the collection its title) are set in B.C.’s Kootenays; geography and local culture are always significant. The stories are populated by Mounties, tough women, naïve teens, dissolute men, concerned parents and grandparents, aging hippies, land owners, tradesmen—the various characters one imagines to live in these small B.C. communities. Whether the story is about a building contractor, a marijuana grower, a lawyer or a hired hand, readers are let in on occupational secrets. Work—or the avoidance of work—defines the character’s place and sets the stage for a major encounter, sometimes a life-changing event.
The idea behind “Dwelling”, the first story, is amusing. Scent plays a big role. The unnamed central character, a carpenter/contractor, works from his basement. His house, at the edge of the forest, inexplicably transforms into an extension of the forest. He must shovel snow from inside his basement; in the fall, his ceilings resemble “the fully leafed-out canopy deep in the woods” (15). Afraid that his neighbours will think he’s hallucinating, he decides to keep matters secret and becomes inured to the forest smells, which at least enhance his love life. A lady friend finds the “earthy” smell aphrodisiacal.
Eventually, the contractor learns to accept these changes with great equanimity, but not all Wayman’s characters are as docile. “Respect” features a cut-throat, unscrupulous lawyer. His manipulative character is slowly revealed. Through a series of flashbacks, readers discover his past infidelities and his devious tactics in dealing with clients and opponents. His final choice confirms his major character flaw.
The other stories seem to follow the same pattern: present a character in a specific environment, use flashbacks to sketch in the character’s history, show how that past has led to this present, and end by intimating that little is likely to change. The ending is almost always unsatisfactory but purposely so.
Several stories involve realistic, often amusing, dealings with the RCMP. In “Green Hell”, the RCMP encourages the narrator to sign what he thinks is a statement (it’s a confession). In “Clouds”, an officer advises a landlord to replace his tenant’s illegally removed marijuana plants. In “Many Rivers”, a hapless stoner becomes an accessory to murder. It’s not his fault, but he could have seen it coming—or made better choices. Who finally gets arrested is an interesting aspect of the story.
The law’s procedures are often divorced from common sense, or from the characters’ own sense of fairness. Humans have an uncanny ability to resist the neat structures provided by law and order. Each encounter with the law comes about as a result of circumstances beyond the character’s control; individuals have their own rationalizations, their own sense of what is right, and justice is elusive.
In “The Shadows we Mistake for Love,” the longest story in the collection, the RCMP break up a peaceful blockade of a logging operation. The officers are orderly, professional; they disperse the protesters without force, albeit with lots of intimidation. In the midst of the adrenaline and excitement, two protesters fall in love. The rest of the story is a familiar tale of a young couple in love, a girl who gives up a career, defies her parents’ and best friend’s advice, moves in with her boyfriend, has a baby, only to be betrayed. “Just because a story is old doesn’t mean it can’t be sad” (110). That’s how the story starts.
Wayman does an excellent job of realistically describing human responses--whether it’s a character’s thought processes during sex, or a curious discovery during a skiing excursion, or a fight between mother and daughter, or the pangs of labour, or having to pry a grieving daughter away from a her father’s coffin during a funeral. Each situation is given its due flavour. Imagery, particularly when depicting the landscape, is another forte. Conciseness, however, is not. If there’s any weakness, it is that each story (with the exception of “Respect”) could probably stand to slim down. Otherwise, it’s hard not to enjoy Wayman’s homage to human habits and complexities.
Carmen Gindi is an English professor at Fanshawe College. With an undergraduate degree from Egypt and an M.A. in English Literature from the US, Carmen is fairly new to Canada and its literature. Her teaching interests include interdisciplinary studies in the umanities, world literature, and rhetorical analysis. She is the mother of twin boys.
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