Eater of Dreams

Eater of Dreams, Alberta Views, May 2020

Reviewed by Yutaka Dirks

Steps away from the bombed-out remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall stands a small statue memorializing Sadako Sasaki, who was just two years old when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city. She lived another 10 years, dying in 1955 from leukemia caused by radiation poisoning. She began folding origami cranes before she died. According to Japanese folklore, create a thousand cranes and one’s wish is granted; Sasaki wished for a world without nuclear war.

Sasaki’s cranes appear twice in Kat Cameron’s debut story collection, The Eater of Dreams. In “Fractures,” a former English teacher returns to Japan to show her Canadian partner the country that had so affected her 10 years ago. The pair travel the countryside, looking for the “authentic Japan,” but Maya, the ex-teacher, is left disappointed. She taught her students about Sasaki, and when they visit the Hiroshima Peace Park she feels faint. It’s not the tragedy that moves her but the feeling that her Japan has moved on and all she’s left with are “fragments [that] didn’t fit together . . . bits of memory.”

Most of the 15 stories here fall into three groups: fantastic or satirical takes on storytelling and writers; a group of tales about Zoe, a young opera singer navigating her familial and romantic relationships after fleeing an abusive partner; and the stories set in Japan with English teachers Maya and Elaine. Grief and loss are never far from the surface. In the affecting first story, a young woman accompanies her friends and their young daughters to Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory. The narrator is angry, unlikeable. But, as is later revealed, she has good reason to be. (As novelist Claire Messud has said, the question isn’t about a character’s likeability, it’s “Is this character alive?”)

In Cameron’s title story, the longest at 67 pages and the most accomplished, a potential friend for the narrator is surprisingly not alive at all. Elaine has come to teach English in Japan after the death of her fiancé. She is haunted by the past: the memories of her dead lover and by the wispy gaijin ghost of a long-dead American expat. Heartbroken, Elaine muses about Sadako Sasaki. “If I had a thousand origami cranes, I would wish for my old life, but now it’s just a dream I once had.”

When I visited the Hiroshima Peace Park several years ago I wept. The death and devastation was overwhelming, unbearable in its massive and yet intimately human scale. The stories in The Eater of Dreams, despite the characters’ struggles, inspire a more muted emotional response. Cameron’s characters are “alive,” even as they are — in the words of Lafcadio Hearn, the gaijin ghost, “only dreaming in this fleeting world.”

— Yutaka Dirks is a writer and social justice activist in Winnipeg.


The stories in Kat Cameron’s debut collection evince the opposite issue. The Eater of Dreams is not precisely a linked collection, in the carefully novelistic manner of Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? or Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House. By contrast, Cameron provides 15 entries sorted into rough groups: one set about an opera singer in Edmonton being stalked by her ex-boyfriend; a triptych of satirical takes on the writing profession; and a series of stories about a clutch of ESL teachers in Japan.

These last pieces, which make up the concluding section of the book, include the title story, by far the longest in the collection. “The Eater of Dreams” focuses on Elaine, a woman grieving the death of her fiancé. Over seven interconnected sections, Elaine is haunted by the surprisingly loquacious ghost of British expat writer Lafcadio Hearn, whom she refers to by the twee diminutive “Laffy.”

The nickname is typical of Cameron’s approach in these stories, which is insouciant and brisk and replete with references to culture both high and low. (One story features a woman waiting in line at an SF convention to meet the actor Leonard Nimoy.) There is plenty that happens in these stories: a couple trying to flee Calgary in a snowstorm almost drive off the road; a man in another story escapes a car wreck only to shoot himself in the head with a rifle the following day; a woman abandons her friends at a debauched outdoor music festival.

But despite the engaging action and a clever interweaving of themes and subjects – including repeated appearances of the funeral hymn “Amazing Grace” and a Japanese legend concerning origami cranes — the technical aspect of the writing does not reach the same level as in Turner’s collection. These are stories that foreground emotion over linguistic legerdemain, though that is not entirely a bad thing: there is plenty of feeling in these pages, and the stories benefit from the resulting forward momentum.

— Steven Beattie


Kat Cameron, a Swift Current-born poet, fiction writer, and English literature prof at Edmonton’s Concordia University, has penned a place-specific collection of sometimes-linked stories with an intriguing title: The Eater of Dreams, and the 67-page eponymous story is a fascinating read, complete with a 100-year-old ghost, a grieving and disillusioned English teacher in Japan, and so many sensory-rich glimpses into Japanese culture — albeit from an outsider’s perspective — readers might almost believe they are there.

The opening stories are Edmonton-based, and as a former resident of that city I enjoyed tagging along with the female protagonists to the Muttart Conservatory, Whyte Ave, and Jubilee Auditorium, even if these gals were not in the happiest moods. One was not having any fun being the sole woman in a trio at the Muttart Conservatory without a toddler, then she lost her friend’s little girl among the poinsettias. Zoe lives in a university-area garret that’s so cold her “breath fogged the air while she watched late-night TV, huddling under three comforters,” and she’s terrified an abusive ex will reappear. In a linked story, Zoe accompanies her new boyfriend to a family funeral in Calgary, and not only does she get put on the spot by being asked to sing “Amazing Grace,” she forgets the words; a snowstorm forces them to turn around on the highway at the end of the miserable day; and she contends that her “problems trailed after her like plumes of car exhaust on a winter night.”

Some of the descriptions really stand out, i.e., in another Zoe story, her brother “has a small goatee, like a line of dirt extending down from his sideburns.” In “Searching for Spock,” Kalla’s grandfather “smelled of peppermints, mothballs, and wool,” and her grandmother’s early-morning baking filled the kitchen with smells of “crystallized brown sugar and yeast with a bitter overlay of smoke.”

The sensory details are strongest in the effective title story. The protagonist, Elaine, is lonely and grieving the death of her fiancé while teaching at a Japanese high school. This is good: “The air smells of gasoline, hot tar, spilled beer, overlaid with a whiff of freesias and roses. The rain starts, a few sprinkles, then falls in thick, warm ropes” and it “drums on the iron stairs”. See, smell, hear.

Elaine’s estranged from her parents and apart from a connection with one kind student, her “longest conversations have been crank phone calls,” i,e., students calling to giggle and ask “Do you li-ku sex-u?” Elaine begins to appreciate the company of Lafcadio, a former writer and present ghost who frequently materializes as a misty shape in the teacher’s cockroach-infested apartment. When the details take shape — “His hair is white and springs back from his forehead with a Mark Twain folksiness,” — she thinks, “If I had to attract a ghost, couldn’t he be thirty-something and look like Laurence Fishburne.”

Sporadic humour, cultural insights, and the wisdom the narrator gains from intensive self-study make this long story a terrific read.

— Shelley Leedahl



The characters in Edmonton-based Kat Cameron’s debut collection of short stories, The Eater of Dreams, find themselves navigating — and living — life in spite of, or because of their past suffering. A woman reflects on the loss she suffered due to a miscarriage while watching her friend’s daughter; Zoe; an opera singer in Edmonton, is stalked by her abusive ex, despite a long-distance move; Kal, a teacher in Alberta, is reminded of her own childhood bullying after reading work submitted by a student; sitting around discussing “firsts,” Sara thinks back to a summer more than a decade earlier when she had longed for an unattainable love. 

While the 15 stories are works of fiction, blending realism and magic realism, some of the characters — or their adventures — are based on Cameron’s own encounters and travels. Having lived in five cities in three provinces and overseas in Japan in her 20s and 30s, Cameron says the characters’ peripatetic lives reflect her own experiences. 

Those experiences include her work as a writer. “Cutting Edge” and “Truth or Fiction” take a humorous look at the writing life. The life of the artist is also examined in three stories — “Whyte Noise,” “White-Out,” and “Dancing the Requiem” — that feature opera singer Zoe.

“My mother sang opera with the Edmonton Opera chorus for 25 years. Because of her career, I’m aware of the joys and struggles of a singer’s life,” Cameron says. “Through Zoe, I explore both the financial insecurity of an artist’s life and what Lisa Moore calls ‘the transformative power of art.’” 

The bullying Kal experiences in “Searching for Spock” mirrors Cameron’s own experiences with bullying in elementary school. And like Elaine in the title story, Cameron taught ESL in Japan. 

Lafcadio Hearn, Elaine’s gai-jin (foreigner) ghost in “The Eater of Dreams,” is based on a writer who lived in Japan from 1890 until his death in 1904, and who wrote several books about the country, Cameron explains. Lafcadio embodies a romantic vision of Japan, while Elaine offers a more contemporary viewpoint. 

“The idea for ‘The Eater of Dreams’ actually came from a student’s comment,” Cameron says. “She told me that her family had a ghost (yurei) in their house. I started wondering what kind of ghost would haunt an English teacher’s house.” 

Cameron initially wrote the book as a novel about the gai-jin experience in Japan. This then became her master’s thesis at the University of New Brunswick. While working on her PhD, teaching, and writing poetry, she again revised the novel and rewrote it into stories, some of which are connected, and the result is a collection that is about more than her experience in a foreign land. 

“When I put the collection together, I was looking for a recurring theme and realized that the characters are haunted by lost relationships — a partner, a parent, a child,” Cameron says. “Before I moved to Japan, my first husband died of complications from cystic fibrosis. In the years I was completing the collection, I lost three aunts and one uncle; my second husband lost both his parents. 

“The reality of mortality and transience permeates my fiction and poetry.”

— Laura Kupcis