Friday, May 18, 2018

11th Canadian Challenge - 21st review - Digging Up the Mountains

I've been reading more short stories lately, though mostly as collections by a single author, rather than mixed author anthologies.  In fact, the next two reviews will cover short story collections.  This collection, Digging Up the Mountains by Neil Bissoondath, was Bissoondath's first collection, and many of the themes that he covered here turn up again in his later work.  Bissoondath mostly is interested in the immigrant/emigrant experience and mostly involving immigration to Toronto, though a few of his stories look at the circumstances of people who had immigrated to Canada and then returned.  My very first book review on this blog was Bissoondath's novel, The Innocence of Age, and much like that book, I wish I liked this book a bit more.

While I appreciate Bissoondath was trying to stretch his repertoire, two of the stories written from the perspective of a female (and a non-Caribbean female at that) just aren't particularly believable in terms of character motivations and don't hold up very well: "The Cage" and "An Arrangement of Shadows."  Unfortunately, these are two of the longer stories in the book.  When Bissoondath is on slightly more familiar ground, such as writing about an older female who joins her relatives in Toronto (as in "Dancing"), the results are far more plausible; I still had issues with this story where the islanders resent being told to keep it down and take their revenge by blowing snot on the white man at their door.  So classy.  The "wretched of the earth" indeed.  I'm fairly sure this story has been anthologized, since I have read it before in some other context.

"Digging Up the Mountains" and "Counting the Wind" both focus on how unpredictable life had become in the Caribbean, with corruption rife and the threat of physical danger becoming part of the everyday reality, particularly for non-natives, i.e. Indians who had settled in the Caribbean.  These stories focus on the push factors that drove Bissoondath and others like him to the U.S. or Canada.  "Dancing" has just a bit of the pull factor, when Miss James gets a letter from her sister saying that she could make so much more money in Canada, which inspires her to leave Trinidad (and indeed it is an Indian doctor who tells her that she won't like it there).

A few of the stories then focus on the difficulty in adjusting to the new social climate (and the winters!) of Canada, such as "Dancing" and "Christmas Lunch."  One of the more interesting stories is "There are a Lot of Ways to Die" where someone who had moved to Canada, then came back and was hailed as a bit of a returning hero, essentially validating the others' decision not to leave.  However, he finds that he has been changed by his time in Canada, and no longer likes the pace of life or the small town feel on the island, apparently embodying the idea that "you can never go back."  He misses Toronto, even dreams of being back on the subway.  At the end, he decides he is returning to Canada, though breaking it to his wife may prove a challenge.  These stories offer considerable insight into the new immigrant condition (or rather what it was like back in the late 1970s and early 1980s), but they didn't always work for me in a completely literary context.

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