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How many of this year's crop of collections of short stories will be republished in fifteen years? Not many. A short story that reaches beyond its time is a rare thing. There Are No Elders was first published in 1993, and Exile Editions have done readers like myself a huge service by reissuing this collection. The book is a collection of eight stories, all focused on different aspects of life as experienced by West Indian immigrants to Toronto. It would be a mistake though, to say that the book is only about one ethnic group and the dilemmas encountered by those finding themselves in a culturally alien world. Clarke is a skilful crafter of fiction. His characters, situations and dialog reach beyond their particular circumstances and exert a universal appeal. That probably accounts for the longevity of these stories, as much as their appeal.
The book commences with the strong and disturbing If the bough breaks. Five West Indian women, affluent and fashionable, are having their hair done after a hotel lunch and Martinis. When they hear police sirens they immediately assume a black person is about to be arrested. A white teenager is led away, setting up an intense exchange between the women. The girl is vulnerable in the hands of the police. There have been reports in the papers. Why should they care about a white girl? What about their own daughters? The women are caught between race and gender solidarity. The conclusion of the story illustrates the humanity of the five women, but not before Clarke has forced us to confront difficult moral questions. As Norman Mailer says on the back cover of the book, there is a moment in Clarke's stories when "one realizes one has learned something new that one didn't want to know…And so on one goes, alternately congratulating and cursing Austin Clarke, while changing the workings of one's own mind."
Clarke's ear for spoken language is superb. When the girls are discussing the teenager taken away by the police one comments: "She was unfaired by the police." It's hard to imagine how that sentence would have the same impact in grammatically "correct" English. If the bough breaks becomes a little didactic when one of the women declares when discussing racism: "...it is the history and experience of each and every one of us in this room." There are a few other points too, where I felt the characters were giving voice to Clarke's thoughts rather than their own. However the narrative is completely compelling. The twists and turns in the plot, the build up of suspense, and resolution are terrific. Clarke includes revealing details like a master painter unobtrusively placing a small object in a larger scene, not to draw attention to itself, but to emphasize the main point of the work.
Many of the stories are set in Toronto, but they hark back to the West Indes, with scenes of family life, adolescence, and coming of age. By drawing on the West Indian background of his characters as well as on their current urban life Clarke is able to set up contrasts that give these stories energy and tension. In an Elevator sees Susan Cole, a young office employee recovering from a bad episode of food poisoning, shown in stark relief against the cleaners who wait for her to vacate the toilet, and the black man who enters the elevator as she's leaving work. This is no ordinary uncomfortable ride with a stranger. Someone has pressed all the buttons, probably the cleaner in an effort to exact revenge, or perhaps just assert herself. And the man is black. He's listening to a walkman, so it's probably rap music. He wears a cap. Backwards. His hair is shaved. We're stuck with Susan and her growing anxiety as the elevator descends, floor by floor. When it stops, the man is polite and courteous. He leaves an indelible image in Susan's memory, and she tells herself her tears are caused by the cold air.
Beggars is a story within a story. The action takes place on a crowded commuter train, with people crammed up against each other so close their flesh touches and they can smell each other's perfume, aftershave or body odor. Each jolt of the train causes another small collision. The first person narrator is pressed against a woman whose life he imagines, or rather, invents. In this inner story the woman lives with a violent, disappointed husband. She takes meticulous care of her appearance, and she plans to leave her husband. When she gets off the train her fellow passenger follows her with his eyes, wishing he could follow her in real life. He's stalking her, but she doesn't know it. He thinks of "the fear that resides on women's faces when the man who walks close to them carries an identity they cannot penetrate." In the end the man is deterred by this fear, but deterred from what? With Beggars Clarke builds two levels of tension and leaves readers to sense it without relief.
The stories are poignant and moving, at times funny. There's one about a middle aged man who takes a prostitute home then spends the evening drinking with her. There are two tales of reconciliation, one welcomed the other not. The separation of mother and child leads to another reconciliation, this time of the older woman with her own mother. Clarke is comfortable writing from both men's and women's perspectives and despite the West Indian perspective he brings to bear he's not dependent on this, and neither are the stories. Austin Clarke shines a bright light into some dark places. There Are No Elders is well worth republishing.
© 2008 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: firstname.lastname@example.org
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