DESPAIR by André Alexis


and Other Stories of Ottawa
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Echoes of Dinesen, Borges, and Djuna Barnes sound throughout this debut collection of eight curiously linked stories, first published to great acclaim in 1994 by the Trinidadian-born Canadian author of the equally highly praised first novel Childhood (1998). Metafictional whimsy and eerie nightmarish visions jostle together in this uneven yet engaging volume, which begins brilliantly with “The Night Piece.” Here, an impressionable teenaged wedding guest infers, from a story of vampiric possession told to him by a fellow guest, that “his fate had changed”: specifically, that he now knows the adult world bristles with mysteries and dangers he had only imperfectly intuited. The concluding story, —The Road to Santiago de Compostela,— is almost as good: a witty exchange (a la Boccaccio) of stories “about Love, or Ottawa, or Love in Ottawa” among four Canadians in France on a pilgrimage whose tale-telling comprises a compact faux-Platonic debate on the nature of love. Other pieces—grouped to focus on their respective protagonists “Michael” and “Andre”—exhibit a frustrating unevenness. “Kuala Lumpur,” for example, diffuses the potential resonance of its arresting premises: a culture that puts a son to death when his father dies; and “Metaphysics of Morals” extracts a lame meditation on the contraries of evil and innocence from an anecdote about a dropped glove. But the amusing “My Anabasis” transforms fear of marital infidelity into a wry consideration of emigration and identity that’s also a clever gloss on Canadian Ernest Buckler’s celebrated novel The Mountain and the Valley. And the five-part title story, though it’s resolutely anecdotal, gets rich parabolic mileage out of its several illustrations of “the mysterious ways by which death enters the world.” Not a complete success: opacity and coyness crop up far too much. But convincing evidence of the stylistic assurance and thematic range of an eccentrically gifted writer.

Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 2000
ISBN: 0-8050-5979-2
Page count: 212pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1999


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