Historically significant times are not exactly the most restful to be living in.
Over the past six months or so of life during pandemic (heartbreaking), rebellion (yes!), and change (stressful though necessary), I have found myself turning to short stories as a means of temporary escape. When my mind was whirling too much to settle down into a novel, I discovered that I could almost always manage a short story.
This spring I polished off Angela Carter's Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, Grace Paley's Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Muriel Spark's Bang Bang You're Dead, among others. But those are books for another post.
Today I closed the cover on Ethel Wilson's Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories, published in 1961.
If you've never heard of Ethel Wilson, I'm not surprised. Even though she is—if you look hard enough—honoured for her contributions to Canadian literature, she was unknown to me until Persephone Books published her novella Hetty Dorval.
I know only snippets about Ethel Wilson's life, gleaned from online articles and book introductions and afterwords, but I have my eye on a biography of her written by her close friend Mary McAlpine, entitled, The Other Side of Silence: A Life of Ethel Wilson. I'm interested in learning more about this women. Because based on my reading of her fiction, I'm pretty sure that Ethel and I would have gotten along famously.
Reading Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories was like swimming through a lake that is dappled with both sun and shadow, with invisible depths below. Each story takes you somewhere different—some are comical, and darkly absurd; some are tragic and disturbing. Many are surreal and strange, such as the eerie "Mr Sleepwalker" about a woman who sees the same fox-like man, who smells of earth and rotted wood, wherever she goes, no matter the city or province. Or "The Corner of X and Y Streets" where a young couple experience a strange performance, where "...light, shadows, time, distance..." seem to focus all together, and then everything disappears.
The stories are harmonized through a consistent, thoughtful and penetrating observation. Sometimes this comes through in a narrator who is pensive and watchful; other times it is more satirical, in which we are shown the strangeness of "normal life" through the ordinary dialogue of people who do not look within. But each story leaves you with a sensation of catching a glimpse of something you hadn't seen before.
Ethel Wilson lived most of her life in British Columbia, and her writing is full of descriptions of that province, with its mountains and lakes and forests, bordered by ocean. In the story "A Drink with Adolphus" one character asks her taxi driver to stop at the top of a hill for "ten cents' worth of view." And in "Hurry, Hurry", the wintry landscape is the backdrop for a short tale of fear:
When the mountains beyond the city are covered with snow to their base, the late afternoon light falling obliquely from the west upon the long slopes discloses new contours. For a few moments of time the austerity vanishes, and the mountains appear innocently folded in furry white. Their daily look has gone. For these few moments the slanting rays curiously discover each separate tree behind each separate tree in the infinite white forests. Then the light fades, and the familiar mountains resume their daily look again. The light has gone, but those who have seen it remember.
The stories are unusual but also very readable. And what I might love most about Ethel Wilson's stories is that they are never bleak. They may be sad, they may be heartbreaking, they may be slyly poking fun at the world, but they never leave one with a sense of despair. In fact, for every story that wrenches your heartstrings, there is another that elevates you with its joyousness. There were more than a few times when I laughed out loud while reading, including during this memorable moment from "A Drink with Adolphus": "A black poodle dog, walking on his hind legs, pushed past them, strode down the library, out of the French windows, and disappeared."
Such things can happen in Ethel Wilson stories. And who's to say they can't happen to you too?
Ethel Wilson books are well worth seeking out if, like me, you enjoy having your laughs tangled up with a few tears, a literary landscape to admire, and a few new insights to ponder.