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A Review of: Off Centre
by Paul Keen

"Taking a Line for a Walk," a short story in Caroline Shepard's impressive new collection entitled Off Centre, takes its name from a children's book called Harold and The Purple Crayon which is based on an ingenious conceit. Harold is a child who uses his purple crayon to sketch his surroundings. In fact, his drawings form the entirety of the book's illustrations and, by implication, the whole of his world against the blank space of each white page. As I can testify from personal experience, children and adults love the book for the strangely unremarkable way that Harold gets on living with the contractedness of his world. But, like so many children's books, it is animated by a gentle sense of potential disaster. Not watching what he's drawing, Harold's shaking hand draws an ocean which he himself becomes immersed in; having drawn one side of a mountain in order to get a better view, he falls off the edge of the other side. In both cases, Harold is wily enough to save himself, drawing a boat in the first instance, and a balloon in the second.
Caroline Shepard's triumph is in recognizing the power of the story as a metaphor for the ways that her own characters struggle to fashion a coherent perspective in unsettling worlds where they consistently find themselves-as the book's title would suggest-off centre, slightly out of step with their surroundings, caught off guard by their own half-glimpsed emotional impulses. If Shepard's recognition of the ways that Harold's struggle to fashion his world despite his tendency to undermine his own best efforts resonates with readers, this is true in large part because of her stories' extraordinary subtlety. Existential struggle may be a favourite subject of modern literature, but Shepard manages to eschew the usual melodramas, crises, and frustrations. Thoreau insisted that the great mass of people lead lives of quiet desperation; in these stories that sense of desperation is often almost inaudible (especially to the characters themselves), and when it does surface, it does so in intriguingly cryptic ways. Importantly, this sense of struggle is balanced against an enduring sense of optimism which is as resilient as it is tenuous. Shephard excels in capturing this evocative mix of vulnerability, hope, and distraction.
She manages this in part by depicting a series of wonderfully nuanced dramas where these pressures play themselves out on multiple, intricately connected levels. Several of the stories are set in Africa, viewed through the lense of a series of white characters who are forced to live with their troubled status as Westerners, which no amount of good intention can erase. Shepard makes the most of these tensions. The narrator of "Snakes, Like Stars, Amaze Me", a Canadian "expert" helping with a training centre, lives with the knowledge that her friendships will inevitably be laced with humorous distrust: the locals' sly laughter as she struggles with the taste of their beer, and their ability to place her in the role of a white cultural imperialist. "No, she repeats, we are not telling these stories. We have learned long ago from the mission schools that they come from a time before we were civilized," one intervenes in response to the Canadian's curiosity about their apparent lack of fear of snakes. This Canadian lives on the "outside of the smile that passes between them." In "Once a Tourist", a Western couple struggle with funding cutbacks which close the school they work in, but also with the skepticism of locals "about how the Makgoa, the English, always arrive with a big bag of ideas. One goes away . . . and a new one arrives, just like that, and like magic along comes the next bag of ideas for what we need to do." In "The Space Between Us", an African waiter at a luxury resort jovially regales two Western teachers with the story of crocodiles who ate an American missionary.
Complex psychic worlds unfold against the discordant noise of imperial legacies. In "Snakes, Like Stars, Amaze Me", there is a moment of illicit connection that can barely be described as a kiss as the narrator walks with a colleague named Tebogo, who heads the training centre, after a disastrous meeting with funding authorities. "It does not surprise me when our bodies turn. I already know. Our eyes, dark, white, also the sky, dark, white, and the dusty exhaustion of our minds, the dust on our lips that meet in anger, his a different sort than mine. A different sort of anger. A moment. Never more alive. A delicate, withheld, violence."
This is, in some ways, a perfect evocation of Shepard's artistic achievement. These are not obviously dysfunctional worlds or situations that boil over into the more easily conveyed terrain of open hostility but dramas which turn on elusive recognitions, slight but indelible connections, and equally subtle fissures. The stories are laced with a kind of uncanny irony that is both comic and discomforting as characters wrestle with different ways of feeling foreign, out of step with the worlds they live in. All of this is played out against the sort of wonderfully conveyed sense of atmosphere that is evoked in the book's first paragraph: "In the Africa I love, the night air carries the smell of wood fires, and dry thatch, and dung, and the salty odours of our dust-covered bodies as we walk through the village. Whenever I run my tongue over my lips, I taste the earth, the desert earth whipped up by dust devils, wheels, feet, brooms." The tactile immediacy of these scenes jars in unpredictable and remarkably effective ways with characters' elusive and enigmatic understanding of themselves.
Characters' frustrations emerge in muted ways through a sort of refracted violence which haunts these stories. The narrator of "Snakes, Like Stars, Amaze Me" struggles with a fear of snakes that is intensified after one is killed just as it is poised to strike. "There is a quick slithering movement in the tree, the sudden inflation of scales at the neck, the blank eyes, now still, poised. Bogatsu lets go of the sling, and I hear the zing of the stone whipping past me. Ijoo! Ke eng? Mma Tladi is on her feet as the snake drops dead from the tree." The spectacle of snake attacks percolates as a kind of phobia that is mixed up with various other preoccupations until a second snake appears inside the narrator's hut at night. "I do not see the snake until it is already looping down from the space between the thatch and the wall, hovering cautiously not more than two feet above the lizard. . . . But it is not fear alone, after all, that overwhelms me as I witness this strange floating dance, back and forth, back and forth, this elegant forked tongue licking at the air. It is actually amazement that holds me waiting, expecting to hear the sound of its voice."
Fears about the literal menace of the snakes themselves blend with a "delicate, withheld, violence" rooted in a more subtle sense of alienation. The narrator realizes that the snakes "are not new in this landscape, as I am." It is her questions about locals' apparent indifference to the threat which provokes their anti-imperialist rhetoric. Disgusted that Westerners, who once dismissed their culture as inferior, are now eager to record their stories as anthropological raw material, they remind her of her own culture's absurd story of the snake in the garden of Eden. The sense of violence in these stories is as complicated as it is "delicate." In "The Space Between Us", the waiter's story about the crocodiles who ate a missionary recurs when the main characters spot crocodiles for themselves after a herd of antelope spring back from a river bank. The whiff of violence merges perfectly with the narrator's frustrations, after having been lured by a dysfunctional colleague into vacationing with her and her estranged mother at an expensive resort.
This blend of social and psychic tension plays itself out in different ways in "Once a Tourist". The narrator, another visiting white teacher, has agreed to carry an envelope, supposedly carrying a few pounds, from South Africa across the Tanzanian border to a woman's daughter who has a new baby. As the narrator knows full well, in reality it also contains a forged British passport and airline ticket to London. Her discomfort grows as a Western couple she meets en route warn her that con artists who work a smuggling racket for their own criminal purposes regularly prey on bleeding hearts like her to traffic these sorts of documents across the border. "It's only a few pounds," she lies to them defensively. When they ask her why she has agreed to go out of her way to undertake an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous bus ride in order to complete this errand on a stranger's behalf, she is unable to answer.
The scene feeds on deft political irony. The narrator had seen the couple earlier on a train ride from Nairobi to Mombassa, and had felt a kind of revulsion for their imperial arrogance (he read The New Statesman, she, Out of Africa). "And what about Ngugi wa Thiong'o, I want to ask as I fiddle with the buckle on my pack, what about this small volume I have tucked away in here, what of his views on Karen Blixen living amongst his people, interpreting their lives for the world." But the narrator's sense of cultural empathy and humility brings confusion rather than clarity. She cannot answer their questions or heed their warning about her own mysterious errand. Whatever their own cultural arrogance, this couple have a clearer sense of the situation than the narrator who is unaware of what she is getting herself into or why. The tension grows as she rides the bus towards the border, the letter carefully hidden inside a letter addressed to her sister in Regina along with a stack of other letters, all addressed to destinations in Canada. To reveal any more would give away the ending of a beautifully crafted suspense story, but suffice it to say, it culminates with the sort of furtive and enigmatic moment that is characteristic of these stories.
Not all of them are set in Africa. Two linked stories form the centre-piece of the collection. The first, "Off Centre", provides the book's title. The second, "Taking a Line for a Walk", invokes Harold and the Purple Crayon. The stories follow three siblings, Molly, Aline, and Seth as they gather at the family cottage to celebrate their parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary, and inevitably, wrestle with the various ghosts that haunt them. The first story is propelled by Molly's tendency to regress to her teenage state, smoking out of the bedroom window with a rolled-up towel under the door, as she unhappily recalls her childhood awareness of her father's philandering ways and her mother's denial of it. Molly's perfectly preserved bedroom has nothing to do with "the muddled world of confusions and fears and longings that she inhabited as a child." Instead it reflects her mother's desperate need for order, a kind of internal repression that permeates the story. She won a $20 bet with her brother Seth a couple of years earlier by rearranging her childhood books, which her mother preserves in alphabetical order. The books had been returned to alphabetical order by the time of their next visit.
For Molly, this desperation to preserve a past which she cannot square with her own "muddled" memories "signifies her absence, rather than her presence." But like so many of the other stories, the tensions which animate "Off Centre" are ultimately unsettled through a kind of ironic reversal. From Molly's own uncomfortable perspective, Aline is oblivious in a way that seems equally banal and insensitive. Aline can only be so well-adjusted by not knowing and not caring. But "Taking a Line for a Walk", which is told from Aline's perspective the next morning, exposes a darker internal world which recasts Molly's resentment as a kind of arrogance in its own right. It was Aline, in her graduating year in art college, who had fused Harold with his purple crayon with Paul Klee's theories about art to create her own stirring meditations on "the dreaded classroom, society's classroom she'd called it, that snuffs out the imagination." She'd received an A+ on the assignment but, as if to prove her words prophetic, those college years with all of their hopeful questioning and sense of potential seem part of a distant and more interesting past, a painfully forgotten warning of what she now realizes, that "there is something very risky about too much safety."
Molly and Aline find the inner resources they need to cope with their unhappiness. The bitterness between the estranged daughter and mother in "The Space Between Us" gives way to a determination to repair the relationship. But these stories are compelling because they do not preach; they are not covert editorials for goodness and niceness and a triumph of the will over a crazy and uncaring universe. They explore lives which, like Harold with his crayon, are all the more interesting because of Shepard's recognition that people's desire to fashion meaningful worlds for themselves inevitably contains the potential to go unexpectedly amiss. Her ability to convey that insight without having to spell it out in heavy-handed ways makes this collection a compelling read.

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