CARTOGRAPHIES by Maya Sonenberg


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Sonenberg's slim collection of stories, too calculated to be very moving, is this year's Drue Heinz Literature Prize-winner: ten rarefied takes on failed relationships, chilling in their consummate technique but a bit precious in their final effect. Most are about men and women, though each uses a different metaphor as backdrop and atmosphere. The elegant title story goes back and forth between the esoteric techniques of cartographers and a love affair between map-makers: ""If he can read the maps of cities, the maps of stars, of seas, of sedimentation, he can also read the map of the human face."" This technique is extended almost to the point of formula in ""Ashes,"" where a woman (one who is both capable of volcanic eruptions and at the end of her marriage) reads and thinks about volcanoes with her daughter before and after a visit from her husband (""Things could blow at any time""). ""Nature Morte,"" often tunny, is basically a gimmicky piece about the first cubist baby: ""My father grappled blindly with the planes of my mother's body""; ""Interval"" a muddy tone poem about two women who are drawn to each other; and ""Ariadne in Exile"" a rather strained retelling of the Theseus myth. In the most successful stories, the central metaphor plays second fiddle to foregrounded character: ""June 4, 1469"" is a vivid telling of a wedding by the sister of a soon-to-be Medici bride: ""Quarry Games"" is an atmospheric, playful account of a girl and an older boy at an abandoned quarry; and ""Dioramas,"" the most sustained piece, imagines seven different stories (mainly about men who approach and threaten women) as the work of a narrator suffering through a night of insomnia. On an ice rink, one of Sonenberg's characters ""began to practice her figures""--an image that, unfortunately, summarizes a mostly mannered collection that can still be respected for its aesthetic sophistication.

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 1989
Publisher: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press