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The Museum of Possibilities by Barbara Sibbald  

Barbara Sibbald’s The Museum of Possibilities presents sixteen shadow-box narratives—short, concentrated scenes depicting complicated relationships, strong emotions and hard consequences.

In The Museum of Possibilities, the future is limited only by the imagination—and the choices that we make. This exhibit contains, among others:

  • a minor government functionary, forced by an apparent hoarder to face the consequences of his risk-averse life;
  • a driven scientist who learns—too late—the disturbing cost of her blind ambition;
  • the residents of the small town of Madawan, whose domestic purgatories include plotting death by dairy or pondering the merits of fresh produce in predicting adultery; and
  • a military brat named Wanda, who navigates the muddy waters of adolescence and learns about sacrifice, sexuality and the everyday difficulties of sharing life with another.

The quirky short stories in this collection focus on pivotal moments of intense longing—for love, for power, for fame, for freedom, for revenge, and perhaps most of all, for connection in an increasingly disaffected world.

Review text

This collection is a brilliant example of the versatility and vast potential of the short story form.

Barbara Sibbald’s probing, sympathetic, and quietly graceful short stories are collected in The Museum of Possibilities.

The Ottawa-based Sibbald has been an editor, a journalist, and the author of novels, and the stories gathered in The Museum of Possibilities are representative of both her writing skills and her experience, spanning more than two decades of her work.

Divided thematically into three parts, the book begins with the title story, in which a man visiting a hoarder gains glimpses of what might have been in his own life. The collection gains steam, as the stories that follow fully embrace Sibbald’s greatest strength—intimately inhabiting her characters.

The complicated friendship, combined with elements of unacknowledged love, depicted in "Places We Cannot Go" is utterly convincing and affecting. Sibbald is also inventive, as demonstrated in the standout "Things We Hold Dear," which shows the thoughts of a character in a story intercut with those of the reader of that story. The two women are revealed as parallels, as the fictional reader comments on the character:

She believes she’s found solace in others. But now that she understands the narrowness of the contract, can she continue? It is a question I settled for myself long ago, propelled by Phillip, of course, but still... We have to make our peace or be consumed by the quest.

Part two of the book, called ‘Dispatches from Madawan,’ shows off Sibbald’s wit with several sly and often satirical three- or four-page glimpses into the lives of denizens of Madawan, Ontario. But Sibbald always manages a kind of elegant subtlety, and she never sacrifices a deeper point on the altar of humor.

Part three marks another highlight: the five stories that profile a single character, Wanda, beginning at age eight and continuing through her adult life. Here, Sibbald allows a view of family dysfunction through the eyes of a child, a preteen, and later, an adult, in convincing voice each time. The saga culminates in the story ‘The Normal Blur of Myopia,’ in which an eye degeneration forces Wanda to truly see the nature of her own personal life.

Sibbald has a deft and delicate touch in bringing her characters to life—small details regularly reveal larger truths. The Museum of Possibilities stands not just as an excellent introduction to Sibbald’s writing or a handsome and convenient collection of some of her best work in fiction—it’s also a brilliant example of the versatility and vast potential of the short story form.

—Peter Dabbene, Foreword Reviews

Review quote

‘This is a book to be cherished, placed on a bedside table and to be read intermittently, but only one story at a time. Each tale, even the short ones, leaves you exhausted from the intensity. Recovery time is necessary before starting the next one.’

—Paul Gessell, Artsfile

Review quote

‘In spite of my usual preference for a more lengthy narrative, I found the stories in The Museum of Possibilities highly entertaining, being tightly constructed and inventive, and featuring unsparing observation of the human condition in its mundane failures, though these are recounted with a dark and witty relish.’

—Patricia Lightfoot, Montgolfiere Weekly

Review quote

‘Sibbald’s stories are witty, clever, creepy and sometimes deeply emotional. The voices of her characters are strong, especially Wanda, a child of an air force family who appears in a series of linked stories in part three of the book. Sibbald nails an increasingly disaffected, strange young girl who becomes a stranger teenager.’

—Hattie Klotz, Ottawa Magazine

Excerpt from book

‘Tell me,’ he says. ‘But, please, may I sit down? My ankle—I broke it a few years ago....’

‘Of course, I should have offered.’ She gracefully removes a stack of boxes from one of the chairs, perches them on top of another pile—precariously, it seems to him, yet they stay put.

He sits. His legs are cramped, held in at an odd angle against the press of boxes and books, but his ankle is definitely more at ease. ‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘Now, tell me: What’s all this about?’

‘You’re the first who’s asked,’ she says. ‘I don’t like to show unless there’s interest. I believe that curiosity is life’s force.’

She turns and begins shifting boxes from another pile, finally unearthing the one she wants. Its glossy packaging promises a tool for effortlessly dicing rock-hard root vegetables and pungent onions. She places the box on top of a stack of large books beside him so it’s level with his head. Rather than opening the box from the top, she pulls at the sides: it falls open. His mouth falls open. He feels as though he’s entered another world.

He’s in a tree amidst branches, mottled leaves and roughly textured bark. And there, partly hidden, a nest, containing three robin’s eggs, the pure blue reflecting a perfect summer sky. A small human finger, a child’s, gently touches the edge of the nest. Beyond the nest, other trees tower; it’s a forest, yet more. An orchestrated forest. What an ideal forest might look like. A pair of squirrels is poised on a nearby branch; their chatter is almost audible. And he glimpses a deer lying in the grass below, asleep or at rest. Perhaps dead. It’s like a set in a play, he thinks. Only real. Yet not.

‘It’s beautiful,’ he says after a moment, aware of the woeful inadequacy of his words. He cannot say more, fears he may begin to cry, though he’s not sure why.

[Continued in The Museum of Possibilities....]

Unpublished endorsement

‘Shot through with sparks of sly humour and dancing nimbly on the fine line between real and surreal, this collection is an outstanding display of what the short story can do when it finds itself in the capable hands of a talented writer like Barbara Sibbald.’

—Diane Schoemperlen, author of Forms of Devotion and Red Plaid Shirt

Unpublished endorsement

‘The short stories in The Museum of Possibilities resemble a cabinet of curiosities, one of those small proto-museums first started in the Renaissance by wealthy collectors, containing all sorts of exotic ephemera. In this case, many of these engaging stories take place in the fictional town of Madawan, where it appears every relationship is under siege. A woman in a difficult marriage fears going blind; another woman is a hoarder but also a creator of worlds in miniature; a third employs a strange dream therapy to deal with the loss of an infant. In one quintessentially Canadian story, a woman becomes lost in a snowstorm while returning to her husband from an affair. The snow piles up like her guilt. These are wonderful stories in which the author is able to evoke in the reader all the fear, anger, and emotional pain of her characters. And what characters! In all cases, they are genuine, living, breathing players that come to life on the page.’

—Mark Frutkin, author of Fabrizio’s Return, winner of the Trillium Book Award, and Atmospheres Apollinaire, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award


authorPic

Credit: Sean Sisk

Barbara Sibbald is an author, editor and journalist. Her previously published works include The Book of Love and Regarding Wanda. A health journalist for over twenty years, she currently works as News and Humanities editor at the Canadian Medical Association Journal. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

For more information please visit the Author’s website »

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 / Literary

FICTION / Short Stories

ISBN-13: 9780889844001

Publication Date: 2017-03-15

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 184

Price: $19.95