What our bodies, our relationships, and our best efforts have in common — a guest post about Chez l’arabe by Janice Zawerbny September 04 2014
In 2013 House of Anansi Press launched Astoria, a new imprint dedicated exclusively to publishing short story collections. That year, one of the first collections to be published under the imprint — Hellgoing by Lynn Coady — won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in Canada, beating out a longlist and shortlist dominated by novels.
I joined Anansi three months after the launch of the new imprint, and the first short story collection we acquired was Chez l’arabe by Mireille Silcoff. What first caught my attention was a set of interwoven autobiographical stories about a woman battling a rare neurological condition. The disease leaves the unnamed woman on bedrest for months; she is trapped in her house, in her body, and in her mind. These four first-person stories are a fascinating examination of physical and mental confinement. As a reader, you feel the claustrophobia of the character’s limited existence, the frustration of her complete dependence on others, and her longing for corporeal and psychological freedom
These four stories merge seamlessly into the rest of the collection, which includes the story published on Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, “Champ de Mars.” In this story, a woman named Ellen must contend with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in her once-successful husband and her own pent-up rage and resentment. Throughout their marriage, Ellen has lived in her husband’s shadow: he’s an internationally renowned architect and she is as invisible as the glass walls in her husband’s designs. Ellen feels like an outsider in her own body — eating and baking compulsively — and her own family. She has already lost a daughter, and she is rejected once again by her husband, who sits day after day in a subway station he designed, drawing intricately detailed hearts for strangers.
There is a recurring theme of failure in Chez l’arabe: of our bodies, our relationships, and our best efforts. But the stories are always tempered by sharp humour and shrewd emotional insights. Silcoff’s ability to articulate a deep appreciation of the beauty in the world around us is one of the hallmarks of this collection: from a meticulously set dinner table and luxurious old furniture to modernist subway stations and exotic California flowers.
Eudora Welty once wrote: “Some stories leave a train of light behind them, meteor-like, so that much later than they strike our eye we may see their meaning like an after-effect.” That describes the experience of reading Silcoff’s stories: they possess a distinct visual and psychological resonance that imprints itself upon the mind long after you’ve finished reading. As only the very best writing can.