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False Relations

Michelene Wandor

 
"She thinks she knows it all. She thinks she knows what everyone in the world is thinking. If you were well, she says, you could come with me, there are a lot of older women coming. Of course I don't say anything. I think of my knife. Under my pillow."

Reviewed by M Bobowski

By the time I finished the first story in Michelene Wandor's False Relations, I was hooked. The Devil in the Cupboard is a modern fairytale where a woman makes a deal with the devil and must complete three tasks to find true love. It has all the elements necessary to a good fairytale: an important quest, a dash of magic, and repetition of a ritual. 

The narrator paints her flat white at the beginning, and between lovers she returns home and paints the flat white again. There's symbolism in the color. Purity, and the connotation of a blank canvas or an unmarked sheet of paper, as though returning home and purifying her surroundings can also return the narrator to an unsullied state. Each time she sets out to find her true love, she remakes herself.

Each time, her accomplishments would be the work of a lifetime for a lesser heroine, and each time, they fall to the wayside as she meets a man that she holds in greater esteem than herself.

The beginning of the end of every relationship comes when the narrator learns to love "making him dark, fragrant coffee in a white swirling jug, and crumbly biscuits." The variety of biscuit changes, but not the outcome. She realizes one day that everything she was has atrophied while she willingly neglected her own talents to support the dreams of someone else. Maybe the biggest fairytale element of all is that she is the one who leaves, rather than the Painter, the Sculptor, or the Composer, after she evacuates her personality and becomes a servile shell of the woman who once inspired them.

Like all good fairytales, a departure from ritual signifies an end to the status quo. The Narrator forgoes painting her apartment in favor of burning the trappings of her former selves: her cookbooks, her fabrics, and her instruments. She has broken the pattern and sprung free from the cycle of doomed relationships. Instead she finds happiness with the Devil; he's willing to make the coffee.

Yes, it has a message. All the stories in False Relations do. The things that Michelene Wandor thinks about are ever present: what it means to be a woman, what it means to be Jewish, what it means to grow older, and where those things intersect. Wandor doesn't use her characters as a mouthpieces for her own opinions. Instead, the thoughts and feelings are logically, naturally, their own. You're free to draw your own conclusions from their experiences.

In The Story of Esther and Vashti, Wandor retells the Book of Esther from the Old Testament. Vashti doesn't evince great moral indignation at being treated as an object. She says, " am a product of my time." What she objects to is parading herself nude in front of visiting princes a week after giving birth and still bleeding. Esther, wife of Mordecai, trades her sunset years for the flat belly of youth, leaves her aged husband, and becomes a concubine of the Persian king. I'm a little appalled that Mordecai seems so willing to prostitute his senior citizen wife at the behest of God, but in the end Esther saves her people and everyone gets to live happily ever after, except Haman, who gets hanged from his own gallows.

I love good historical fiction, partly for the pageantry and spectacle of another era, but also for the insight into how people in another time viewed themselves and their world. Much historical fiction is just modern people in fancy dress, but Wandor's characters feel authentic, like real people making choices in their world, something I find rare in Biblical re-tellings.

She accomplishes the same depth in Song of the Jewish Princess, where a fifteenth-century court musician flees Spain for a new life in Italy, and in the seamless blending of past and present in Corridors of Light and Shadow, where an impostor Isabella d'Este and Henry VIII share a brief romance in Mantua as they imagine it was, and the title story False Relations explores the friendship between the renaissance composers Carlo Monteverdi and Salomone Rossi.

Michelene Wandor is a talented writer, and her work displays both her musical background and skill with poetry. Most often these are assets, but in some places the pathological absence of quotation marks and clear attribution made following dialog muddy (Corridors of Light and Shadow). Wandor also has a habit of structuring narrative in the literary equivalent of two-part harmony. It's attractive in moderation, and worked beautifully in Toccata and Fugue describing the decaying domestic affairs of an ageing actress. In other stories it was difficult to follow and did more to render them obscure than add depth (Musical Chairs). The technique felt overused, a result of reading so many stories utilizing it so closely together.

It's impossible to conclude a review this book without mentioning the musical motif that runs throughout. Even the title, False Relations, is drawn from musical terminology. "False relation: A contradiction between two notes of the same chord, or in different parts of adjacent chords,"begins the title story. Music is everywhere, from the dirt-encrusted recorder an Israeli woman finds buried in the sand in Yom Tov, to Henry's delicate fleece-wrapped instrument in Corridors of Light and Shadow. The constant presence of music in structure and subject binds the collection together. The stories of False Relations resonate long after the covers of the book have been closed. It isn't just a good book, it's a work of art.


 M. Bobowski lives in northern Sweden. She really likes books and hopes to write one someday.

M's other Short Reviews: Ursula K. Le Guin "The Birthday of the World and Other Stories"

James P. Blaylock "13 Phantasms and Other Stories"

Daniel Marcus "Binding Energy"

Anthony Cropper "Nature's Magician"
 

Publisher: Five Leaves Publications

Publication Date: 2004

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?No

Author bio:  In addition to being a short-story writer, Michelene Wandor is a poet, playwright, and musician. Her adaptation of The Belle of Amherst received and International Emmy and her dramatization of The Wandering Jew was performed at London's National Theatre. She also teaches writing workshops on fiction, poetry, and drama.

Read an interview with Michelene Wandor


Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Five Leaves

AbeBooks

Author's recommendation: Daunt Books

Amazon

Book Depository

And...don't forget your local booksellers and independent book shops! Visit  IndieBound.org to find an independent bookstore near you in the US


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Michelene Wandor "Guests in the Body"

Michelene Wandor and Sara Maitland (ed) "Arky Types"

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