The Sometimes Lake

Prairie fire review of books (Vol 12, No 3, 2012)

Reviewed by Dave Williamson

Science and mathematics are never far away from the consciousness of the characters in this first
collection of twelve short stories by Saskatoon’s Sandy Bonny. 

The story “Sense” follows a female archaeologist named Alwynne on a field trip into the

Rather than spend her mornings and evenings driving to and from the canyons, Alwynne was
camping on site largely so that she could spend time sieving the riverbed – a painstaking, hit-andmiss,
but occasionally exhilarating means of isolating some of the most beautiful artifacts of early
Plains Culture. Glass beads, tin beads, iron beads, awled porcelain beads, and every now and then
a quill. (140)

Suspense builds as the sun goes down and Alwynne tries to go to sleep while hearing a variety of
sounds and noises. She is less apprehensive about the wildlife than she is about the human voices and
car doors slamming.

“Sense” stands out from some of the other stories because of the clearly expressed motivation, the
straight-ahead narrative, the vivid description, the authenticity of the details. You the reader are right
there with Alwynne, who feels confident and resourceful but is still experiencing some trepidation. In
a few of the other stories, the narrative seems needlessly convoluted.

“Tell” is a quirkily effective story in which the female narrator, a librarian, is distraught because
her ex-boyfriend is about to marry her ex–best friend. After making an attempt to slit her wrist, she
heads for solace in a cafe that is featuring a live storyteller. A “granola girl” who recognizes her from
the library sits down at her table: “She told me that she always admires my French braids. She was
grinning and it was a nice thing to say, but I find it hard to react appropriately to compliments from
strangers. I often lie.” (63)

Early in the story “Tango Medio,” the female narrator says, “I decided I had to break up with
Darryl when sex started to remind me of baking” (128). While she bemoans the routine
circumstances of life with Darryl and his beekeeping parents, she also relates some fascinating details
about bees. And the story does take a melodramatic turn that injects some unexpected excitement
into the relationship.

In “Nògha,” Jens is a substitute teacher trying to convey some aspect of math and science to a
mixture of ages and temperaments in a northern school. In a milieu of near-chaos that includes
rampant vandalism, he fixes upon the study of eggs becoming chicks to meet the vice-principal’s
stipulation, “keep your class interested and in order” (13). “Oh, they know where babies come from,”
the school social worker tells him. “Stacey has two at home. Hmm, and Darren has two in the oven,
two ovens.” (16) “Nògha” first appeared in the winter 2009–10 issue of Prairie Fire.

Human reproduction is at the core of the fine story “Carys,” in which middle-aged mathematics
professor Michelle has been trying to become pregnant with husband Matthew, also a math prof. She
has had four conceptions but has miscarried each time. She reaches ten weeks of a fifth and the
doctor describes the embryo as a housefly. She wonders why he chose that particular image:

A lentil or coffee bean is the same size. A ladybug. There are nicer objects in that size class. But
the doctor had said not much bigger than a housefly and she could see one now. Appearing to
hover, wasp-like, near the lamp sconce above the porch where a movement of air twisted the web
that the fly had been caught in. . . . [The doctor] had assured them that their embryo was
developing normally. But it was obvious to Michelle now . . . that anything capable of coming to
life is also capable of dying. That women of child-bearing age are equally capable of hosting death.
. . . The irony was the previous twenty years of birth control. (51)

At an academic conference in the United Kingdom, Michelle sees a young woman presenter named
Carys who could be her daughter, if only . . . By turns heart-rending and funny – with some
contrasting asides involving Matthew and their dog – “Carys” is an example of what a story should
be: rich in character, thought-provoking, and satisfying.

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest novel is called Dating.

Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Saturday June 16, 2012

The second story in Saskatoon writer Sandy Bonny's first collection of stories is called Frames. It opens with the line: "If you don't leave your mind open, you're not going to see them," that begins a story of two young women driving out beyond the edge of the city each night to search the dark sky for alien spaceships.

Here we have a number of the components of a Bonny story, a dozen of them collected in a slender volume called The Sometimes Lake. First of all, as these two women do, you have to leave your mind open. Secondly, a number of edges are involved here, including the one between the city and open country, between night and day, between girlhood and womanhood, and between reality as many understand and believe it and a whole other way of seeing things.

That's what Jens finds in the opening story, Nogha, which means wolverine in Dene Tha'. He's a teacher who's come up to the Arctic from the south to try to handle a class of Grade 7 students after their teacher gets sick. "Only five of his students are actually 11 or 12 years old; three have been held back for language skills, three started late or failed earlier grades. Stacey, afternoons only, is 22."

Jens tries various ways to interest his students in science, including incubating eggs from a hatchery and putting seeds in wet paper towels. Various accidents derail his projects, including the cynicism of his fellow teachers, but he plows on, caught in a zone between cultures, ages and ideologies.

In Marrow, there's a distinct smell in grandma's basement and the young girl who narrates the story wonders if it bothers the ghost of her grandpa. There's also a door down there, a door that appears to go into the side of the earth and she's not supposed to try to open it. What's beyond that door? And in the lovely Carys, a woman who has just become pregnant, or hopes she's pregnant, attends an international conference where she repeatedly sees a young woman off to the side, not a main academic participant like her, but likely a grad student who lacks the credentials and the confidence to be part of the larger proceedings. Who is this woman? Who is her supervisor? And will Michelle carry her baby to term?

Bonny exploits with care and precision the divide between what is ostensibly happening in the story - Michelle pregnant and at a conference, desperate to carry this baby to term - and some of the conference proceedings, such as colleagues discussing the death of stars and the creation of black holes. "Death hurts, but it is also a solid certainty. It can be sudden, but it is unmistakable." Cryptic words for a woman who has suffered previous miscarriages.

In Tell, a woman who has been betrayed by both her boyfriend and her best friend - now what do you do with that old thematic chestnut? - winds up in a cafe where she is ambushed by a storytelling evening starting around her. As she contemplates her misery, she is gently accosted by a woman who sits down at her table for the performance and she allows into her consciousness the story being told. Slowly, as her mind turns over and she accommodates the woman's chatter and the story, she comes to a resolution.

The tiny, beautiful story A live flame will start begins with this line: "I think sometimes I may have died halfway." Another edge. Is her man really dead, as all would tell her, or does his ember only need her wilful breath to bring his flame alight? Bonny's short stories all balance on the edge between the probable and the wildly, even insanely, possible. There is no telling what her characters might do, but she tells it and tells it well.
— Bill Robertson

Read more:

SPG Book Reviews, May 24, 2013

“My daddy used to say things about what we’re made out of to make my mom roll her eyes. Like crystals vibrating. Also energy balls.” – “Marrow”, by Sandy Bonny

Sandy Bonny, a Saskatoon-based writer, creates a compelling collection of stories from all corners of life in The Sometimes Lake. These are funny, moving stories of real people in contemporary settings. They warm the heart with dynamic characters the reader can’t help but want to know more about. These stories include a pair of young, bereaved children in the exotic mountains of a Buddhist nunnery in India; the bored girlfriend of a beekeeper devoted to his vexing family; a new teacher trying to get his bearings-culturally and otherwise-with a Northern Canadian Dene community school; two lesbian university students brought together by a special mutual friend; and a little girl’s musing upon death and loss after her grandfather passes. Myth and belief intertwine when a young man who is situated at a commune becomes trapped and unable to leave, and when road builders from bygone days explore legends of their past. Bonny’s love of science, the human condition, and people from all walks of life will shine through these works.

Shortlisted for the Saskatchewan Book Awards 2013, Sandy Bonny’s book is a fantastic collection you won’t want to miss.

 — Alison Slowski