Monday, November 25, 2013

Book: From the Fifteenth District

Mavis Gallant's book From the Fifteenth District is a collection of nine wonderfully written short stories set Europe, in periods of time ranging from before, during, and after World War II.

The characters are vividly drawn and the settings are so artfully portrayed as to almost become additional characters in the story.

I was especially drawn into a story called 'The Moslem Wife' about a British woman who inherits the family hotel in the south of France. Like many of the stories in this collection, this one has several layers. It is about the protagonist's relationship with her lazy, philandering husband, but also about British expatriates during the period leading up the the Second World War, about the war, and about fractured communities.

Mavis Gallant, born in Montreal in 1922, was a journalist in Canada before moving to Paris in 1950 to write. Many of the stories in this collection are about people who inhabit a space without actually belonging to there - a British family who moves to the Riveria so the ailing patriarch can die there, a German former soldier who does not make it back to Berlin until many years after the war has ended, an aging Polish bachelor in Paris who falls for a flighty Canadian girl...

The tension of person and place has a strong role in each story, as much as any dynamic between characters. As someone who has spent many years of my life inhabiting but not belonging to a place, these stories resonated deeply with me. I was also impressed with Gallant's talent as a short story writer such that in with so few words, she is able to create such a rich and complex world of places and people.

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