What Can't Be Undone

the coastal spectator, june 4, 2015

The cover picture on dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s new collection of stories, What Can’t Be Undone, is of a rope pulled taut. The plies of the rope are severed and frayed, and only a single strand holds it together. And this is exactly where we meet the narrators of these stories: along that one, tenuous strand, grappling with grief or loss.

dee Hobsbawn-Smith lives in Saskatchewan, where undoubtedly the landscape inspires her work. Her poetry, essays, fiction, and journalism, have appeared in Canadian, American, and international literary journals, newspapers, magazines and anthologies including The Malahat Review, Gastronomica and Western Living. Her first book of poetry, Wildness Rushing In, was published in 2014. What Can’t Be Undone is her first collection of short stories.

These 13 stories all deal with relationships and what is lost within them. The careful, textured prose reveals Hobsbawn-Smith compassion for her characters. None come off as two-dimensional stand-ins for the questions she explores. They’re deeply imagined people, honest and true.

“Monroe’s Mandolin” depicts a woman who owns a bar. She runs the bar, the Foundry, bought it for her brother, a man who’s life is lost to addiction. “I told myself it would give Cory a refuge if he ever reclaims himself. That it had nothing to do with me, or what I want. But my life is locked into these bricks and boards. Cory’s has gone to waste. I don’t know anymore if I am looking for hope in my twin’s life or in my own.”

In “The Quinzhee,” a woman recounts the winter her brother, then 14, became obsessed building a quinzhee, a shelter made by hollowing out a pile of settled snow. He died and, decades later, she still feels responsible. On the other hand, is “Still Life with Birds”, a story of sisters. Ariana, the younger of the two, runs a restaurant and tends to the convalescent Violetta. We learn Ariana has donated a kidney to Violetta, who still lives. But it’s expected she’ll die within 15 years, and Ariana treats her with kid gloves, terrified of that impending loss.

I appreciated how place permeates Hobsbawn-Smith’s work, the landscape always varied—Vancouver streets, rural Alberta and Saskatchewan, coastal Vancouver Island—and always rendered with a poetic sensibility. Hobsbawn-Smith’s sentences read in a sorrowful cadence which echo, not only the characters’ grief, but the expansive landscape.

In “Other Mothers’ Sons,” Joanna drives along southern B.C. toward Calgary, picks up a hitch-hiker, a boy the age her son was when he died. As she drives, he sleeps: “She glanced at the boy, wondering if he looked like his mother. If she missed him. Surely. The borealis leaped from sky to windshield, the sky baroque and wild and beautiful. The boy slept on, his head rolling, unaware of Joanna beside him, her head thrown back, looking and weeping for what she could never hold again.”

While Hobsbawn-Smith’s strength is in description and character, her dialogue, I felt, often faltered. Sometimes she uses dialect, dropped g‘s, and twangy ain’ts that grated my reading ear. Other times, it didn’t feel like enough was bubbling beneath the speech, the dialogue an exchange of little more than information.

In the end, though, this collection offers an honest exploration of what keeps us in this world after we’ve endured monumental loss. How it is through our unmendable, human heartbreak that we somehow find the strength to carry on.

— Traci Skuce is a writer based in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

 

Blue Duets: Literary Locavore III

There's a whole academic discussion about what makes a short story a short story. Length, the obvious descriptor, doesn't cut it. If a short story is a brief narrative, how is it different from a fairy tale, a joke, an anecdote your great uncle tells every time the family gets together? Frank O'Connor suggests that short stories have protagonists who are outsiders. Hence the title of his book: The Lonely Voice. That would work for dee Hobsbawn-Smith's first collection of short stories, What Can't Be Undone: the characters in these stories, many of which have been shortlisted finalists for prizes, have been turned into outsiders by enormous losses. A twin brother can't manage his addictions; another brother dies when the quinzhee he's been building with his sister collapses. Wives die; husbands leave or die; none of the book's children (if memory serves) still have both parents. In a culture that has pathologized grief or that studies happiness with the desperation of someone trying to kick a drug habit, this certainly renders them outsiders.

But I have a different metaphor, one that is eerily appropriate for this wonderful collection. I think of stories structurally, as rich nodes of events that come out of a life that's been fairly pedestrian and that carry on into a future that may or may not be changed. But certainly in those moments of the successful story there is a collision of energies that pose burning questions that will not brook a character's refusal to answer. He or she can't say "Um...maybe?" For me, the best metaphor is that of a horse riding across country rather casually who suddenly sees before him or her a fence or a stream that needs to be leaped. A short story is like that moment when all the horse's energy and concentration are gathered together, when its past experience and knowledge is brought to bear as it gauges the challenge--and there's no shilly-shallying or indecision. Three stories in this collection involve horses. Hailey is the young horsewoman in "Nerve," and as she discovers, indecision in a story or dressage is deadly.

These stories are beautifully crafted. In "Monroe's Mandolin," a twin sister's despair over her brother's addictions is revealed through a sequence of beautifully-realized scenes in the bar she owns. He has been gone for some months when his mandolin, brought by their mother back from little town in Tennessee and reputed to have belonged to the great bluegress mandolinist, Bill Monroe, is offered for sale in her bar. There is no exposition, no stopping a great scene to fill in details about the past: the background we need is given as elegantly as Monroe used to play. All the tensions between Lise and her twin Cory, between Lise's desires and the life she is now living, are revealed as rhythmically as a horse's canter.

We also see one of the collection's preoccupations in this story: how do you help someone you love who doesn't want to be helped? How do you even broach the conversation about giving help? How do you give help to a wife who was once a dancer and now can barely move? How do you manage not to steal the independence of a sister to whom you've donated a kidney and whose health is a constant concern? How do you help your brother's wife and her son after your brother has been jailed for abuse? When help is accepted--when a young boy takes a lift from a mother who lost her own son to leukemia--the acceptance is a gift to the giver.

So is being asked to give help. One of my favourite stories, "Still Life with Birds," makes use of a world that Hobsbawn-Smith, an award-winning food writer who ran a Calgary restaurant, knows well: the world of the professionals who make us wonderful food. In "Still Life," Ariana has been called back from a food sojourn in France to see if she can donate a kidney to her diabetic sister, Violetta. The experience tightens their bonds, though Ariana doesn't worry any less over Violetta's health: she knows that organ recipients seldom live more than 15 years after a transplant. As well, the drugs Violetta takes to prevent organ rejection leave her prey to osteoporosis and other medical difficulties. As the story opens, Ariana has opened Bistro Etoile, "a deliberate recreation of the small lake-side cafes she visited in France." Enter Gordon, a young man who keeps bringing Ariana and Violetta cherry trees to plant; his attention to Violetta leads the narrator to comment that "This man's generosity is wearing down her worry-stone's hard edges." While the story gives me insight into the professional world of food and its constant pressures, the generosity of food also forms a lovely backdrop for the favour Violetta and Gordon will ask Ariana: to support their decision to marry and have a child, in the implicit knowledge that Ariana may someday have to be that child's mother. Standing by the lake, thinking over her response, another kind of stone altogether enters the story world: Ariana picks up "a smooth small stone that just fits within the cradle of her palm. A rapid release and it skips across the lake, one two three four five skimming arcs that the avocets ignore....She lifts her face to the birds, their impermeable bodies graceful in the air, their beaks pointing south. Their parabolic lives will bring them back in the spring. That much is certainty." The echo made by the stones is crisp and sure, pulling story and character and the moment for making decisions together beautifully.

"Still Life" is one of the few stories in this collection without a first-person narrator. Another of Hobsbawn-Smith's cooks remarks that her chef, Lance, has "taught me how to build nuanced layers of flavour as elegant as a debutante's ball gown." That same narrator, Stacy, notices "black gravel spitting like curses behind the car's rear tires." In a different register, Troy, the "pick-up man" of a story with the same name (and his role is both a pun and a comment on his life), notes that his nephew Aidan is a little hesitant about life: "Aidan gets out of the back seat slowly. I've noticed that, he don't run into things. He holds back and assesses the lay of the land. That sure ain't what I see in most of the teenagers who hang out near the drop-in centre where I work security. Some of them run toward trouble with both arms open." We hear Troy's socioeconomic place in the world, but also learn to trust his perceptions about people, all without comment. Here's the voice of Alex, a widowed playwright and the narrator of "The Good Husband": "At two AM, I'm settled in a comforter on Astrid's old divan on the balcony moon-watching.coyotes, madrigals in four part harmony, the late night sky ruffled with melody." The collection is full of such moments when language brings character and that character's worldview alive for us effortlessly.

This is a collection to be read slowly, in part so you can appreciate Hobsbawn-Smith's gift for voices, for the precise yet surprising turn of phrase that brings a narrator's frame of mind to life. The other reason for taking these stories slowly is implied by the collection's title, What Can't Be Undone The collection speaks to the inexorability of life, time, fate, and character--all of whom will have their way with us at those moments when life gathers itself to take a significant leap that looked so do-able as you approached--not much worse than the other difficulties you have faced. But suddenly the abyss, before you are quite on it, lets you see how wide it is, what challenges you will have to meet and how much you have to lose, how much you have already lost.

— Kathleen Wall

 

Alberta Views, October 2015

Dee Hobsbawn-Smith is a retired chef, Alberta expat and proliferous writer of 13 books on food. She's also a poet and recent recipient of an MFA in writing from the University of Saskatchewan. What Can't Be Undone, a short story collection, is her foray into literary fiction.

Largely written in first person, Hobsbawn-Smith’s diverse, poetically drawn characters engage in acts of faith and failure, hope and resignation, and that murky band of grey that lies in between. Her cast includes yearning cowboys, widowers, teenage hitchhikers and a grieving mother, a chef who's lost her sense of taste and smell, a lonely seamstress in a small town, an ex-nun who runs a sausage cart, an oilman-cum-campground-operator, a single-again middle-aged woman, musicians and sisters and siblings. Relationship and family are a rope that holds—and frays—throughout.

In the opening story, “Monroe’s Mandolin,” a talented musician falls slave to addiction while his twin sister waits on the sidelines, cheering his every rise, standing silent when he falls time and time again. One day she buys back her brother’s mandolin from the local pawnshop so that with time, patience and music lessons, she might be what her brother cannot.

Of the 13 stories in What Can't Be Undone, my favourite is “Appetites” because the writer’s knowledge of all things food shines through effortlessly. In the story a single mother who cooks for a living tries to conceal from her boss her sudden loss of taste and smell. Food is this struggling mother’s life:

Snow heralds the cold, and I braise Indian lamb shanks and Moroccan goat, simmer chickpea and lentil stews loaded with roasted garlic and leeks, get home from work in the dark, my skin stained orange from turmeric, my mouth still tasting only bitterness, most days arriving to find Jared home ahead of me. He has his own key, my latchkey lad. I have taken to cooking from books, following instructions to the letter, no longer adventuring, trust gone.

All of dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s stories are written with a poetic edge. Her descriptions, particularly western landscapes, are often luxurious, lending themselves a kind of nuanced impression, a delicate fingerprint on the reader’s mind. I loved these passages throughout. I wanted, however, more concrete story that I could not only taste on the tip of my tongue but fully, completely experience. I wanted a heightened sense of tension, more follow-through, more of the author’s capable insights applied to her characters and their precarious relationships. But such can be the shortfall of short stories, which leave us, suitably, yearning for more.

—Lee Kvern’s new book is 7 Ways to Sunday (Enfield & Wizenty).

saskatoon star phoenix, saturday june 6, 2015

Saskatoon chef, food writer, and poet, dee Hobsbawn-Smith, widens her arc of achievement with her first collection of short stories, What Can't Be Undone, 13 stories firmly grounded in Western Canada and all predicated upon a serious loss. Now that something's become undone, the characters in these stories must pick themselves up, somehow, and move on.

In opening story, Monroe's Mandolin, for instance, a club owner must contend with a brother who loses himself regularly to addictions, a source of guilt and agony for the narrator who feels that the brother lost something when their mother lost both breasts — and her singing career — to cancer. By story's end the narrator will forge ahead with a pawnshop guitar, maybe this time sticking with it.

In Appetites a woman whose husband walked out on her and their son has lost her sense of taste. She's a cook in a Calgary restaurant and is faking her job, hoping for the best. While her guard is down, she trusts a new employee with her young son. Turns out he's got an unsavoury past regarding young boys and she sees something's happened with her own boy. "I watch closely and see how my son holds himself within his body differently, tentatively, as if he is collecting and controlling his memories. Or his hurt. I can't tell which. My prodding and prying might do more harm than good. How can I ever know how much salt to add, when enough is enough?" Throughout these stories are dead fathers and children, jailed or runaway husbands, orphans, and lots of angry people, men mostly. The final story, The Bridge, which actually takes place in Brooklyn but features a protagonist from Calgary, offers an insight into all these losses. A woman nicknamed Breathless looks at the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge: "Tears slide down her cheeks. So many losses. Youth, lovers, opportunity, Gran, her ruined mother, hope, all the unwinding threads of her life ... Then she looks up at the bridge's silver wires, spinning their own web above the city, its ... stowed secret cargo, broken, beautiful and tragic."

As the ancient Greeks long ago figured out, humans are beautiful because of their mortality, their losses. These stories shoulder that beauty well, most successfully when they don't allow themselves to become too overwhelmed with their poetry — as at the end of Nerve — and stick close to their hard narrative edge. A strong and vital first collection. — Bill Robertson