Ruins and Relics
by Alice Zorn
First collection? Yes
Shortlisted for McAuslan First Book Prize
Alice Zorn is a Canadian writer whose short
fiction has been published in magazines, including The New Quarterly, Room of One's Own,
and placing first in Prairie
Fire's 2006 Fiction Contest. Ruins and Relics,
her first collection of short fiction, was shortlisted for the Quebec
Writers' Federation's McAuslan
First Book Prize.
with Alice Zorn
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"What kind of people! Oma spat now.
Didn’t Trudi know well enough to hold herself aloof? No wonder she was
so godless and corrupt. That was the problem with Canada, a country
that took in the filth the rest of the world didn’t want. Hitler had
the right idea. A man with vision. A man you would trust."
Reviewed by Annie Clarkson
When I open a short story collection, there is always a sense of
excitement about what I will find. What kind of short stories? Will I
be surprised/excited/shocked/inspired? What kind of characters and
places will I discover? Most importantly, will these stories change
anything for me?
Each story is an exploration. If one story fails to connect with me,
the next one might. Or the sequence of stories and experience of
reading them in connection with each other might bring me an
accumulated sense of understanding.
I read Ruins and Relics
over a period of weeks and time has elapsed since I finished the
collection. For me, these stories deserve this time. The themes and
characters are eclectic. We have stories about a couple nursing a
fractured relationship in Tunisia, a girl working with a road gang, a
nurse who steals morphine, a German woman meeting her granddaughter’s
Jewish neighbour, a man with AIDS struggling to accept that his mother
is dying. Alice Zorn brings together stories as though she has created
a beautiful shop selling antique salvage. Stories have relics that
characters acquire or carry with them from the past: cigarette burns,
tattoos from concentration camp, a religious statue, a charcoal drawing
by a man that could have been a lover, the AIDS virus, or secrets that
are not easy to tell.
Zorn depicts her characters in a detailed way and creates descriptive
narratives that explore rather than drive forward. She is empathetic.
Her stories seem to strive to slowly break expectations, taking us into
the back rooms of a shop that seems very small from the outside, and
then opening doors that take us somewhere different.
So, the opening story Entre
Andre is about a writer. There was part of me that
thought, oh no, a story by a writer about a writer. A man watches a
woman writing her novel in the library every day. It felt as though it
might be a romantic story, or one of those man-rescuing-woman stories,
but I was wonderfully surprised and relieved that it was neither. It
overthrew expectations, and even though I didn’t think it was a great
story, it started me thinking that this collection was perhaps going to
surprise and challenge more than I had hoped.
It felt as though the collection deepened and matured as I read further
into it (I always read stories in the order they are presented). The
first couple of stories are good. But I was left wondering what else
the collection had to offer. There was something incidental about the
first story, contrived about the second, as though these two characters
had been dropped together in the same story, but their connection not
It was the third story that gripped me, Stop Sign Princess.
Lucie is a student working with a road gang during her summer holidays.
It’s a brilliant premise. Her character is at odds with the
environment, different social cultures are thrown together, and yet
tenderness and unexpected connections emerge, a different appreciation
of the landscape, and her dull stop-sign job is transformed into
something far more beautiful.
Other stories that resonate are: The
Other Canadian, which I loved because I felt it captured
something about middle age, about needing a reason to have a wild
affair or having to explain the way we behave in a way a younger person
might feel is necessary; All
the Suffering, a beautiful story that explores a woman’s
memories from childhood, a rich, crowded story with a broken narrative
that is interrupted by the every day. I love this line:
"She trusts words. They’re water she swims in, her first friends before
The strongest story is Plum
Dumplings. This story stayed with me a long time, in a
similar way to Bernhard Schlink’s The
Reader. Trudi’s German grandmother Oma comes to stay, and
befriends Trudi’s elderly Jewish neighbor. Their disparate views and
backgrounds seem to be transcended in their friendship, even though Oma
is a bitter, complaining woman for whom nothing is ever good enough.
Her true ignorance is slowly exposed throughout the story in way that
feels almost painful, and the extent of her ignorance becomes starkly
visible Trudi makes them both zwetschgenknodel.
Zorn has a skill in capturing characters and relationships, pinpointing
social, geographical and time settings, and building detail to create
authentic worlds for her stories. Paris for example:
"Cries and traffic from the boulevard below. Deep, booming horns. The
thin window shivers. The noise won’t even lessen by midnight. Pam only
sleeps for a few moments, somewhere around three am."
And her stories intertwine. Lily is in the story Glass on Glass, and
has a cameo role in That
Good Night. Katie appears in two stories, as does Ben.
These connections are tentative, small threads that connect stories,
not in meaning, but in the sense that we all inhabit many stories in
our lives. More than anything, this was the feeling I was left with
after reading this collection, a realization that each story is
distinct, yet when brought together we can see underlying patterns that