It's strange how, sometimes, a book you really want to talk about leaves you without the words to do so. Certainly there are books that leave you so shellshocked that the very idea of starting a new one seems crass and somehow inappropriate. It's too soon, you think. At the opposite end are those books most often referred to as "beach reads," which hold you in their thrall until the last page, at which point you toss them aside and pick up another, typically only remembering their finer plot points when walking home by yourself late at night (assuming, of course, that your beach reads are terrifying, which mine almost always seem to be). There are, I'm sure, lots of kinds of books in between these two extremes, but the two I most often seem to encounter are books I can't stop talking about, and books I want very much to talk about but can't manage to do in a sensible way. Even that sentence borders on what I'm talking about. It's as if you want your words to be so precise, to do the book justice, but in the face of this author you feel yourself unworthy. Bare with me, because this is how I feel in the face of Lisa Moore, and most recently about her short story collection Open.
Open is so hard for me to talk about, I think, because Moore's style is so distinct, and her characters so full, that it's very hard to step away and shake your head clear in order to engage in any kind of critical thinking. The layered descriptions, the scraps of memories, the various characters, all continue to play through your imagination long after you've finished reading. This is something I love about Moore's writing, but also something that frustrates me. The through-line that binds the stories in Open together is relationships. In each story, a relationship – and often more than one, with friendships balanced against marriages – is in flux; in all the stories, characters' memories are overlaid with their present circumstances, which creates a swirl of images that can at times be disorienting for both the character and the reader.
Take, for example, the fifth story Natural Parents, ostensibly about a couple going to a dinner party. They have a baby in the backseat and they're driving, talking about the meal, and then the scene shifts and Anna is remember the night previous, when the baby wouldn't sleep and they were both awake and mad at each other because of the exhaustion. And then the perspective shifts to Lyle, that night, going to get the baby's bottle and stopping in the room of their 11-year-old daughter, only to be swept up in a memory of the two of them spending a day reading at the cottage, and a neighbouring boy coming to visit and taking his daughter away to play. Lyle never wanted kids, he reveals, before running through his sexual history and revealing that, actually, he had a baby before he was with Anna, with a girl he only casually slept with in university. All this backstory, waves and waves of memory, and then they arrive at the party. The story continues, but I don't want to give it all away. The idea, though, is that memories can be a vortex, with one leading you into another and into another, until something abruptly pulls you out, and something always does, because Moore's stories are about the way the present plays with the past (and vice versa), and there is always a reason something wells up when it does.
Moore uses this technique in various ways in all her stories, although she often changes perspectives. Most of her stories are told from the perspective of one character, often a woman, but Moore moves between first-, second-, and third-person narration, offering the reader different a viewpoint to match the story. As such, although all the stories take place in Newfoundland and all the characters are of a similar age, they each feel distinct, and none of the voices or backgrounds feel they could have belonged to any other character. Each person is whole and unique and filled with their own past – memories that haunt them or snippets that rise to the surface unbidden to captivate them. Often, there is a sensuousness to these memories – a first kiss, the shame of new breasts, sex – that gives them their own heartbeat and cuts through the haze of ensuing years to make them feel immediate and vivid.
Open is kind of a bonfire of a book. The intensity of Moore's prose doesn't waver, but there are certainly moments when it cracks and pops, offering unexpected bursts of light. Finishing the collection made me want to flip it over and start again, and it makes me fervently hope she will have something new out soon.
by Lisa Moores
First published in 2002 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)