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book review

Alice Petersen

Montreal writer Alice Petersen comes to us from her formative years in New Zealand, but you wouldn't guess it from the landscapes that so lovingly backdrop this collection. The opening story offers a palpable evocation of Quebec's Shawinigan-region cottage country. In a tight six pages, After Summer presents a fully rendered family drama: Two teens weaned from the pleasures of carefree summers with their single-parent dad, learning in the process that their father's poorly concealed spiritual malaise is finally being healed by the new lover (and ersatz mom) whose arrival steals away his affection.

Among the Trees is again framed by a Quebec lake-country setting, now decidedly upscale. We join a mid-life artist-photographer flinging her celebrated sculptor husband's ashes from a cliff into the lake. High-strung, well appointed arty types people this story, edging toward cliché and colouring Petersen's prose with a spinoff lyricism that undercuts the force of her observation. Sharp imagery is the tale's strongest suit.

In Champlain's Astrolabe, francophone-phobic Brian is dispatched by his Toronto boss to meet a client in rural Quebec, where a silly mistake and zero French facility combine to get him violently ejected from a stripper bar. The scene closes the tale but stops it short, oddly depriving an engaging and carefully built character of the full story arc he deserves.

The book's title story, All the Voices Cry, is a helpless reminiscence in the mind of a woman who slowly grasps that she is lost in the familiar but heavily snowbound woods near her home. This entry is also unexpectedly cut short, but by a bestial narrative twist that wonderfully caps the subtle tensions built. The similarly truncated Where the Corpse Weed Grows recasts the beast, to equally arresting effect.

Among the book's pleasures are bursts of descriptive panache. A nearsighted woman gazing at a meadow observes "rectangular lumps of vanilla fudge that resolve into cows when I put my glasses on." An avocado hurled in rage flies past the victim's ear to burst open on a rock, "it's froggy innards slipping out from beneath the rough skin." Occasionally there comes a startling aperçu, as when a woman coolly examines her response to her mother's terminal cancer: "Isabella did not especially want her mother to live or die, what she wanted was a different mother."

A few characters pop up in multiple stories, sometimes with new names or names not earlier mentioned. The links are sketchy, the re-entering players feeling like alternative versions of themselves – authorial exercises. Petersen's recurring Quebec lake-and-forest settings fare better, giving the collection a geographic centre, augmented by brief excursions to New Zealand and Tahiti.

The Land Below is a nuanced look at the fragile and shifting ground between friendship and love. Rae and Sheila work in a New Zealand nature preserve, introducing tourists to the country's endangered albatross colony. Friends since school days, they find their bond renewed by the new and daily proximity on the job. Through Rae's viewpoint we follow an affectional shift in Sheila's behaviour: longer hugs, a tenderness that finds reasons to be hands-on. Petersen delicately depicts the evolving sexual tension, and Rae's confused reluctance to accept or even clearly identify it. The open-ended tale deftly integrates the needs of an ill and aging parent into the mix.

Scottish Annie closes the collection with a tale within a tale, as a chatty elderly woman is taken for a daytrip from her retirement home to visit childhood haunts. She recalls her conception in the shadow of the local insane asylum – literally in a fiery crucible of transgression. Mrs. Webster becomes her author's amiable reminder of both how unlikely and how seemingly inevitable each human life is.

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