In the past few decades, Canada has won a reputation as a prolific producer of highquality short stories. Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant and John Metcalf are among those who have proven themselves masters of the difficult form, which demands both incisiveness and the appearance of effortless simplicity. Toronto-based author Katherine Govier, a native of Edmonton, is a relative newcomer to those ranks. Known also as a novelist, she was widely praised for her first book of stories, Fables of Brunswick Avenue (1985), about residents of a downtown Toronto street. Her new collection, Before and After, offers a series of snapshots from the progress of love: tales of couples meeting, quarrelling, separating or learning the complicated art of getting along. Clearly a feminist, Govier, 40, writes with a special consciousness of the difficulties of women. Yet her approach is generous to both sexes. And her best stories show that the forces that restrict women also limit the lives of men.
Govier’s heroines are mostly of her own generation, middle-class baby boomers who grew up amid the unprecedented prosperity and expectations of the postwar era. In the opening stories, set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, those characters are in the first flush of
womanhood. The pill has given them unprecedented sexual freedom, while the rise of feminism is slowly broadening their sense of what is possible, in terms of both careers and human relationships. But their experiments in living show mixed results at best. By the end of the book, Govier’s protagonists, older and balancing jobs and families, have learned that every success comes with a cost. As Marian, the married central character of The Bomb Scare, tells Ted, a former lover whom she meets again by chance, the fires of romance have dimmed: “Sometimes, I feel as if it’s all a job, you know, the house, all the arrangements, as if I’ve gone into business with someone.”
Marian’s comment contains the seeds of revolt: a few minutes later, she goes to bed with Ted. Their tryst ends badly because Ted, afraid of sabotaging his own family life, cruelly rejects Marian shortly after they make love. Despite Ted’s behavior, Govier succeeds in making him sympathetic—and that is the story’s strength. Although a few of Govier’s male protagonists veer dangerously close to parody, she balances the picture by giving her heroines some human faults and weaknesses.
Ultimately, the fates that engulf her characters have a mysterious, unknowable quality, which Govier symbolizes by evoking the powers of nature—an Alberta blizzard in Big Game, or the titanic forces that created oil beneath the earth’s surface in The New Thing
I’m About to Do. In the delightful short sketch The Open Door, a couple on holiday in Europe quarrel and finally make love—under the spell of the strange, fragrant night outside their cottage. “The open door made an avenue to the cosmetic glamor of the water, the pebbles of light that led along the path to the castle,” Govier writes. “It let in the odor of rich, loamy blackness, unknown plants on the moor.”
That passage also illustrates Govier’s ability to turn a phrase, something she can do with epigrammatic precision. In the fascinating long tale Domain—about two couples holidaying in a remote Ontario resort area—she deftly exposes the selfishness that motivates some crusaders for noble causes. Watching some cottagers, a local marina owner named Roy observes to himself: “They all wanted their spot on the rock, their dishwasher and satellite dish. Then they became conservationists.” But the best story in the collection, After the Fire, contains no mockery. It is the tale of a Canadian couple, Ken and Althea, vacationing with their two young children in Corsica. As brush fires sweep the dry interior of the island, they try to drive away from the flames that approach the village where they are staying. The family comes perilously close to losing their lives. But by overcoming their antagonisms and co-operating with each other, Ken and Althea eventually find safety—along with an affirmation of a love that recognizes both their differences and the need for equal partnership. Generous in spirit, After the Fire avoids blaming one sex for the problems of the other. Skilfully, movingly, it offers up the realization that the only world worth making is the one that men and women make together.
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