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Pages of Stories, September 10, 2017
Full disclosure: Back in 2010 I published a short story written by Shari based on the two main characters from this book. It’s an excellent story to read. This book however, takes place years before that story occurs and is quite different.
— Darlene Poier, Pages of Stories
EDMONTON JOURNAL, MAY 13, 2017
In that often-difficult transition from our teens to adulthood, or in strained relationships between teens and parents, what are the chances for growth and change? Is there still room for hope in a fractured family?
Those are two larger questions that gradually surface in Edmonton author Shari Narine’s debut novel, Oil Change At Rath’s Garage. Set in small-town, rural Alberta, it’s a gripping yarn that revolves principally around two dysfunctional families who wind up living across from each other.
If the author trades in some familiar stereotypes of small-town life, she also finds fresh insights into contemporary youth culture and the mating rituals of teens and adults. Some readers might raise an eyebrow at the way certain characters swear frequently, or at their occasional sexual encounters, but in the end Narine’s book is never gratuitous, never less than believable, and rich in life lessons.
“I wanted to explore this whole idea of the ‘hook-up’ culture,” the author explains. “To me that’s very real, something I hear my own boys talk about and something I see around me. It’s the whole question about casual sex, ‘is it just sex’ or ‘where does love fit into all this?’ and whether everything is just physical. So I hope it’s something that speaks to young adults, to make them reflect on where they’re going with their lives.”
The author says she directed her novel towards adults and leaned a bit towards women readers but she hopes it can find an audience with men and young adults. Which makes sense since many of the scenes involve high school age teens, apart from their parents. Their parents are busy enough dealing with infidelity and the hypocrisy of small-town morality.
Oil Change At Rath’s Garage takes off abruptly with a violent confrontation in high school. But the larger event that sets the scene is the appearance of Jack Humphreys and his two sons Matt, 16, and Ben, 11, in the imaginary town of Delwood. Once Jack gets a job as a mechanic at Rath’s garage you gradually learn how they’re stuck in a pattern of moving to a new town every year or so, what happened to the absent Mrs. Humphreys, and why her memory drives Jack to alcoholism, empty sexual encounters and violent abuse.
In the townhouse across the street, mother Allie Rutger and her three daughters Lyne, Glory and Becca will become curious friends and maybe more for their new neighbours, offering a much needed dose of female nurturing along with their own needs and desires. The reader is inevitably hooked on whether love and the need to set down roots will triumph over the Humphreys’ self-destructive ways.
Shari Narine was actually born in Guyana, but was only about eight months old when her parents moved to Alberta. She lived in several small towns right into married life before moving to Camrose for college studies, and eventually Edmonton to complete a bachelor of arts (English major) from the University of Alberta.
Writers like Robert Louis Stevenson inspired her interest in books early on but she recalls getting a serious case of writer’s bug in Grade 9, after being struck by the realization that “you can really move people in how you write.” Over the years she has served as a writer or editor for various newspapers and magazines, including a short stint with the Edmonton Journal, and the author continues to freelance in journalism and fiction today.
Narine has been writing and publishing short fiction since 2008. The concept for Oil Change started coming together about six years ago.
Given her small-town upbringing you have to wonder how much of the book borrows from her real-life experience.
“I would have to say that (fictional) Delwood is a combination of the three towns I grew up in and married and lived in, Daysland, Donnelly and Pincher Creek. I think small towns all have a similarity but they all have individual things as well. I think Delwood itself is a character in this novel.”
Narine has two sons, now young adults, but she underlines they are not real-life studies for the two brothers, Matt and Ben Humphreys in the novel.
“Although my husband and I split up, my two boys grew up with stable parents. I guess I wanted to see what happens to children who don’t have stable backgrounds. The novel is ultimately a kind of love story between the two brothers. Their relationship isn’t healthy and I wanted to explore that. And when it comes to Allie, the (Rutger) girl’s mother, I think she and I are very opposite. She’s stuck and has no real support from her family, which is where a lot of women are.”
Like a good movie, the best part of Oil Change At Rath’s Garage may be the skill Narine brings to showing us important insights about love, sex, parenting, and sibling relations, rather than simply telling us outright. She notes “readers should think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.” Rather than using a fully omniscient viewpoint, she plumbs the inner dialogues of five principal characters to ensure you get to know them.
That title, Oil Change At Rath’s Garage, is a metaphor of sorts. There is a specific oil change for the Humphreys in the middle, but the story contains a larger dilemma about how far these characters can go to find a greater sense of self-worth and family stability, about their capacity to change. Along the way, a subtext addresses John Steinbeck’s famous depression-era novel The Grapes Of Wrath, drawing loose parallels to that book’s Joad family and a promised land.
“In the end, Matt Humphreys’ growth is in the terrible realization that he and his brother can’t depend on their father, but he makes certain sacrifices out of desperation. Sometimes you really have no choice.”
Narine argues that teenage life is as much of a confusing “grey area” as it has ever been, so it’s admirable the way her novel offers young people a valuable perspective without getting preachy.
The author credits mentor Margaret Macpherson from the Writer’s Guild of Alberta and editor Michael Kenyon from Thistledown Press for their help in finessing the novel. And readers should know that she is already at work on a sequel of sorts that will involve some of the same characters.
Shari Narine will read from her novel for a book launch at Audreys Books on Tuesday, May 16, with subsequent readings at Daysland Public Library May 17 and Beaumont Public Library May 24.
— Roger Levesque, Edmonton Journal