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
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
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.
Bobowski lives in northern Sweden. She
really likes books and hopes to write one someday.
Publisher: Five Leaves
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.
with Michelene Wandor
this book (used or
Publisher's Website: Five Leaves
Author's recommendation: Daunt Books
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