Eater of Dreams

Review, Quill & Quire, January/February 2020

By Steven W. Beattie

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.

If neither of these books achieves a kind of Barthian passionate virtuosity, each nevertheless features, in flashes, the best of either pole.

— Steven W. Beattie


by Shelley Leedahl

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