Carole Glasser Langille, I am what I am because you are what you are (Kentville: Gaspereau, 2015). Paperbound, 176 pp., $24.95.
There's often a tipping point when leafing through someone else's family photo album, when recognition occurs and connections begin to fall into place. This person—flip, flip, flip—becomes this person. And they go on—flip, flip—to marry this person. Threads gather up and a network of relationships and lives emerges. Carole Glasser Langille's short story collection I am what I am because you are what you are offers readers that sensation, and in this way the book becomes much more than the sum of its parts. By the time we reach the end, readers are likely to feel a powerful urge to return back into it, to cement the links Langille drops into each story, and to see the characters' history—how they became who they ended up being: how a child became a grown woman, why a marriage ended, how time softened an earlier tragedy. In this way the writing is incredibly true to life: we are offered perspectives, and only with the passage of time and the addition of other viewpoints are we able to form a more developed and detailed picture. We pass judgment, and then we revise it when we learn more. Individually, some of the stories suffer from a tendency to be overwritten, to really make sure we get it, and occasionally from an exceptionally clunky or leaden line that thrusts us abruptly away from the narrative. Situations, reactions, and reasons are often described in such a way as to tell us what we're already thinking. In "Valentin in Trouble," danger strikes: "'The current is pulling him out!' I cry. 'Is there a lifeguard?' The man explains there are no lifeguards on duty and tells us to call the police. Then he says he is going to swim out. 'In that current?' Sean asks. 'Isn't that risky?'" In "Cousins," an alarming discovery could very well speak for itself, but isn't really allowed to: "Lydia was stupefied… 'Did he get a bad blood transfusion?' she asked. 'Was he doing drugs? Did he experiment with gay sex? They must have some idea how Doug got AIDS.'"
The collection starts and finishes with two stories about the ripple effects of love that is buried or denied. The same character is central in both the first and the last story, having the effect of bringing the collection full circle. In between these bookends, life unfurls: lies, secret relationships, faithful marriages, the worries of parenting, and the work of self-discovery. Characters are allowed to unfold slowly, surprisingly; a good example is the character of Dan McLeish, painted all one colour when he is first introduced, and only later, after many years, brought back in more realistic and multi-faceted shades.
Two particularly strong stories are "Navigating," in which we see a cool head prevail in terrifying circumstances, and "Who Are You?," in which an elderly couple react to a serious accident that their adult daughter survives. In all of the stories, the writing is strongest when Langille's characters go through difficulty—as in life, character often emerges in a real and meaningful way when under stress or facing tragedy. "Funny what seemed like problems once," thinks Mr. Mercier in "Who Are You?," recalling a prom-dress mishap while providing round-the-clock care for his granddaughter and injured daughter. "He never knew sadness could be so physical, that one could feel it move into the chest and lungs."
Because the stories don't shy away from the fullness of life, its confusion and joy and anguish, the reader could be permitted to do much more work, to meet Langille at least halfway. The plots are believable and the lives meaty, but the narration would do well to hold back a bit more, to allow us to take in the story and overlay our own conclusions and summaries. Spooning out so much descriptive information—from inner thoughts to theories to plans— narrows the possibilities of interpretation and prevents the reader from having any personal investment in the storyworld. The best example might be "Class," a quiet story of how we bear sadness. As Nick, a teacher, tries to find a way to exist in a world that makes him feel he needs to choose between pursuing his own right to happiness and helping the less fortunate children in his care, we are privy to so many of his thoughts, and his path is explained so fully, the delicacy of emotion is dulled.
And yet the stories do not let go easily. This is a collection to which readers may well find themselves returning, not only to clarify relationships but to see how changes in our own lives might affect our perception of these all-too-human characters.