Ruins and Relics
 by Alice Zorn

NeWest Press
2009, Paperback
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 Grain, 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.

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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 fully realized.

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 even Pete."
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 connect experiences.



Read a story from this collection at NeWest Press

Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her first chapbook, Winter Hands, was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007.
Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"

Mark Illis "Tender"

"One World Anthology"

Samuel Ligon "Drift and Swerve"

                     
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