BOOKS IN PRINT

Promise of Shelter by Robyn Sarah  

What a treat it is to read stories that do not seek to reduce the complexity of our lives or the ambiguities of our relationships, intriguing stories that are profound without being heavy. There are eight stories here, some very short, others long, and all worth reading, pondering and then rereading.

Known since the early 1980s as an accomplished poet, Robyn Sarah turns her talents to prose with this collection of short stories, Promise of Shelter. Her first book of fiction, A Nice Gazebo, was published by Véhicule Press, and was an ‘Editor’s Choice’ in Books in Canada. One of the stories included in Promise of Shelter, ‘Accept My Story’, was a Journey Prize Anthology selection. Reviewer Frances Itani singled it out as the work that most engaged her: ‘This is a moving, beautifully crafted story, and the reader is drawn deep into its centre.’ This story also won a National Magazine Award, and was shortlisted in Best American Short Stories 1994.

Promise of Shelter is linked not by a common setting or characters, but by narrative intent. It is storytelling that steers a path between layers of a situation so as to tell two stories at once, setting up a counterpoint between the real and the imagined, the literal and the figurative, the mundane and the spiritual. The stories themselves, with their recurring motif of keys and doors, play variations on the theme of shelter: of security lost and found, refuge sought and denied. Details accumulate and interact like chords in music, ordinary events and objects have the resonance of signs and omens, and ordinary lives brush the margins of their own vulnerability even as they affirm their resilience.

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1998—Hugh MacLennan Prize,
Shortlisted

Review text

Robyn Sarah, who lives in Montreal, has published several volumes of poetry and a previous collection of short stories, A Nice Gazebo (1992). Her poet’s sensibility is at work in her fiction, too, transforming the most ordinary occurrences into extraordinary moments. Something as mundane as repainting a kitchen table suddenly takes on significance as an act of renewal. Sarah can hypnotize you with the recounting of the most trivial, everyday events -- it’s partly the tiny shocks of recognition of small, barely conscious thoughts or gestures that, at some level, you had assumed to be peculiarly your own. On the other hand, she can write of events that have a strong potential for melodrama -- suicide, mental breakdown, schizophrenia -- in a low-key, sometimes conversational tone that conveys the bizarre, but emphasizes the ordinariness in the midst of which the dramas occur. Unexpected flashes of black humour also keep the stories grounded.

Throughout the work, there is tension between the outer, physical world and the inner worlds of memory, imagination, and dream. ‘Accept my story’ circles the event at its centre, surrounding it with imagined versions of its occurrence, and with connected memories. Its structure could be compared to that of a mandala; the comparison probably comes to mind because there is a sense in which many of these stories are meditative. The most obvious case is ‘Gabriel at My Left Hand’, for it involves a journey up a mountain and an overnight vigil that is clearly also a meditation, one that promises a form of enlightenment, if only the two participants can grasp the moment. In ‘Shelter’, Holly remembers a dream she had had as a child in which she had thought herself utterly lost, but then had suddenly recognized familiar streets and realized that her grandmother’s house was close by. ‘In delight and gratitude she walked along in the feathery snow as if on air, making no sound, filled with peace at the beauty of the night and the nearness of safety. . She knew where she was going. She was nearly there.’ Something more than the relief of finding home and family is implied; there is the suggestion of an ultimate ‘shelter’ and a sense of peace to be found. There are Zen-like qualities to these stories, in their spareness, and everydayness, as well as in their theme of homecoming. And like Zen tales, they stay with you long after they are told, teasing and puzzling the mind.’

—Helen Hacksel, Books in Canada

Review quote

‘What a treat it is to read stories that do not seek to reduce the complexity of our lives or the ambiguities of our relationships, intriguing stories that are profound without being heavy. There are eight stories here, some very short, others long, and all worth reading, pondering and then rereading.’

—Faith Johnston, Prairie Fire


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Robyn Sarah was born in New York City to Canadian parents, and has lived for most of her life in Montréal. A graduate of McGill University (where she majored in philosophy and English) and of Québec’s Conservatoire de Musique et d’Art Dramatique, she is the author of seven poetry collections and one previous collection of short stories, A Nice Gazebo, published by Véhicule in 1992. The same year, Anansi published The Touchstone: Poems New and Selected, a collection of her poetry spanning twenty years. Robyn Sarah has also recently published a collection of her essays on poetry, entitled Little Eurekas.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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FICTION / Short Stories

FICTION / Literary

ISBN-13: 9780889841925

Publication Date: 1997-10-15

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 128

Price: $14.95