As our era's best short-story practitioners know, we tend to mark time generationally, more so than by historical events or the calendar. A number of Carol Windley's eight new stories in Home Schooling acknowledge this tendency. The finest of them embody it.
As Graham, the grieving widower in "The Reading Elvis", tells it: "Without Annette, time had no measure or quality; seasons loped past like small fleet animals. First one year passed, then two, then three . . ." Before Graham knows it, he's facing mortality with his life's chapters neatly compartmentalised by women. That is, for a time he lived with his mother, then his wife, then his daughters, and so on until (perhaps) his end.
Many of the other stories share this subtle respect for distinctly felt chronology. "Sand and Frost", for example, travels with ease among the rocky epochs of one family's history, picking up the building blocks of a disturbed daughter's personality. But then, Windley needs a keen awareness of time's shifts, since she crams a myriad characters into virtually every story. Fortunately, her people all have a lot to do and say. And the work's so graceful and generous, it feels like they've been given exactly the amount of time they need to speak and act.
Even so, impatience is a common theme here. Most of Home Schooling's protagonists are girls on the cusp of womanhood, inclined to the bohemian life but unsure of themselves, impulsive in a bookish way—very recognisable, in short. (And that's a compliment.) In "Felt Skies" for example, young Rachel is a secret poet, still living with her mum. She gets tangled up with an older man at the small-town radio station where she writes copy:
". . . as I worked I'd imagine Simon being as distracted by my presence as I was by his. No one was supposed to know we were seeing each other, mostly because Simon didn't want to get teased about robbing the cradle, as he put it. I didn't care. I was pleased Simon was interested in me . . ."
This can't help but end badly, you think. And so it does—but not that badly. A moral but not moralistic writer, Windley has the wit to know that bad decisions don't always end in disaster (it makes one wonder whether they were they such bad decisions after all). There are some surprising resolutions to the stories about young women in this book; Windley is that rare modern writer who favours resolution in narrative. Not that she relies on pat endings, or cliffhangers (except in one instance), or arty "conclusions" where characters stand around in hand-wringing indeterminacy. No, part of Windley's talent is that her short stories usually finish rather happily, or sadly. The puzzled contentment that concludes "Children's Games", the story of an unlucky young stepmother named Marisa, is my favourite example of this:
" . . . Marisa shocked herself a little by taking a cool, considered look around and saying, yes, it's nice isn't it? . . . [But] it was as if she were striving to remain a little detached, as if she were asking herself: . . . How could she deserve all this, the beautiful room, the four walls, the splendid old house on its hill above the city?"
Maybe she doesn't deserve it—but there, satisfyingly, Marisa's story wraps up. The rest of the piece is just as marvellous, revealing another of Windley's virtues, a facility for social satire in the key of low, performed with such delicacy it almost seems an afterthought. Here, Windley considers that modern junction where religion shorn of its scary bits— i.e., the New Age—meets a capitalism similarly denatured—in the corporate retreat:
"[Garth, a motivational speaker] . . . opened a book, held it at a solemn distance, and read: 'From my own voice resonant—singing the phallus. Singing the song of procreation . . .' He paused, then went on, in a strong, authoritative, agreeable voice: 'Singing the need of superb children, and therein superb grown people.'
The spell cast by the words was shattered. . . when Mike said, 'That's so cool.' Grace said, 'I know. That's Whitman, isn't it?'
'Yes,' said Garth. 'It's Whitman. "Singing the need of superb children, and therein superb grown people." That's us, wouldn't you say?'
'Yes,' said the others. 'Oh, yes, that's us, definitely.'"
Note how Windley's eyebrow barely twitches as she relates this bit of buffoonery. Here, as in a few other ironic scenes from Home Schooling, the author's content to let phalluses like Garth speak for themselves. His ninnyish trend-hunting, like pop culture and politics, forms part of life's background in Windley's book. But Windley properly marginalises such aspects of modernity, giving them minor roles in the fierce dramas of her characters' lives. That Home Schooling takes time out to be funny, and contains a sneer or three, doesn't detract at all from the project's artistic seriousness.
In this, and in some other ways, it must eventually be said that Carol Windley is very much like Alice Munro. Of course, Munro's shadow falls over every Canadian working in short fiction today, and it's no use pretending otherwise. It's also very true of "our Chekhov" that the nature of her accomplishment consigns her many mere imitators to obscurity and failure. (And deservedly so.) It's important to ask, therefore, whether Home Schooling's stories might be imitations. Windley's use of so many of Munro's conventions—stories unspooling almost to novella length, a narrative tone both dry and warm, small-town settings footnoted with journeys to big cities or other countries, familial peace and war—does leave the younger author open to the charge of being derivative. The crucial question becomes: how does Carol deal with Alice?
Pretty decently, as it turns out. They get along fine. Windley's debt to Munro is undeniable; the competing accounts of a domestic slaughter in "Sand and Frost" directly echo events in the 1986 Munro classic "Fits", for example. But Home Schooling stands up on its own. That's because its author treats her literary inheritance the way good writers should: with respect, not worship; as a guide, not a blueprint; as a gift, not a burden; and as a crucial tool in the construction of new, fine, original literature. Carol stands on Alice's giant shoulders, that is, without trying to steal her coat. Windley is neither a clone nor an acolyte.
Still, she will need a path out of the shadow toward more singular achievements. (And soon; this is just her third book in thirteen years. With her productivity apparently as stately as her prose, Windley at fifty-nine may have only a few volumes remaining with which to make her mark.) One possible route is figurative language. Carol Windley often gambles and wins with elaborate metaphors, high-flown descriptive passages, and a symbolic parallelism between the human and natural worlds:
"Nadia had imagined her mother lying on the bed in her room, listening to sad songs, staring up at shadows as lush and dark as birds in their winter plumage . . . She watched the sun slip behind a mountain, a brief flare of gold low in the sky. A cold breath came off the sea . . ."
This is just gorgeous. Nevertheless, Windley does not always succeed. Sometimes, in these stories, we dawdle a bit too long among the hibiscus, while divorce, death and sexual obsession stand waiting outside the garden gates. Such sighing pauses are a major, but not crippling, flaw in "Felt Skies".
Carol Windley's future, with her nomination this year for the Giller Prize, should include a larger readership. Particularly so, if late middle age makes her more prolific, as it sometimes does with writers of her judicious, unhurried species. (Mavis Gallant and William Trevor come to mind.) She'll deserve that growing audience if she fully masters that balance—between arresting language and narrative momentum—great short fiction must maintain,
I expect she will. There's a hint of genius in Home Schooling already, in this writer's superb positioning of her young women between the past's tidal pull, and the sexy, scary torrent of the future. Carol Windley understands how the human heart expands and collapses in human, not "real" time. As the unsentimental heroine of "The Joy of Life", recalling a youth of tumult and betrayal, notes unruefully: "She has achieved one perfect work of art. That is, she's managed to get what she desired . . . she has been married to Tom for nearly forty-six years, although it doesn't seem that long, it seems no time at all." •
Lyle Neff is a Canadian poet, whose most recent book was Bizarre Winery Tragedy (Anvil, 2005). He lives in Vancouver with his wife and sons.