Reviewed by Lee Gold
Mary Lou Dickinson has created a rich and varied
first collection of short stories, “One Day It Happens.” They
reveal a full range of human struggles not purely feminine ones.
These modern stories touch on issues of woman abuse, alcoholism,
divorce, homosexuality, child sexual abuse and mental illness.
No longer forbidden topics, they still bring pain, shame, fear
and, too often, silence. However these stories bear no resemblance
to political tracts or diatribes. They do what good fiction does
best: reveal the human condition in its endless permutations,
differences, horrors, pleasures, and contradictions.
The narrator ranges from first person to third,
from male to female and young to old. But always there remains
an ability to find significance, humor, irony, or menace in small
moments, brief encounters and prolonged friendship. A young child
draws a house, surrounded by trees, on the lid of her father’s
cardboard coffin; a lecherous old man seeks out a new arrival
in a nursing home to revive his lost sexual prowess. The stories
challenge the reader to examine moments of adventure, to be open
to connection as well as to fear and even death.
The collection has a rhythm, a structure that helps to make the
darkness of several stories bearable. It can be read as a fugue
of sorts, orchestrated to frighten, amuse, repulse and even, delight.
The reader gets taken on a journey over time.
Some stories are directly informed by the writer’s work
as a crisis line counselor: “Slides from Exotic Places” and “From
the Front,” fictional accounts of such experiences reveal
the toll this work takes on one’s body and spirit as well
as the kinds of issues that arise in the course of a single shift. “The
Essay” vividly portrays the mind of a woman, whose sense
of self has been so severely traumatized as a child that she has
to struggle every moment to hold together the splintered pieces
as a fragmented adult.
The stories are far from repetitive nor are
they all bleak. Two, especially stand out for their deft touch,
wry humour, and self mockery. “Neighbours” about the deaths, a year apart,
of two gay men from AIDS is as sensitive a telling of the ravages
of this disease and the prejudices of a homophobic society as one
could wish for. The other, very different in the telling as well
as the subject, consists of PERSONALS, both his and hers. The reader
witnesses the shift from an effort to find a companion, albeit
playfully, to a woman simply finding pleasure in self-revelation
over the space of a few years and giving up on finding “Mr.
Right.” These stories arrive when the reader needs a bit
of relief: ironic light cast into the shadows of the more prevalent
darkness of human experiences.
I struggled with one story in particular, a mad or perhaps not
so mad, woman living in her fantasy world or acting out for the
sheer adventure of it. I could never quite tell whether it worked
or not. But the pleasure of such a collection lies in its variety,
enough to satisfy a broad readership. Mavis Gallant once said she
thought short stories should be read singly, with time in between.
For me it depends on the writer and, of course, the stories. I
read these three or four at a time over the course of a few days.
None are very long but each feels complete. Only two involve the
The writing does not draw attention to itself;
the stories occupy center stage. The style lends itself to the
tale told without embellishment, simile or metaphor. (I noticed
one and it felt discordant.) The voice feels consistent throughout
even as it changes from first to third person, female to male,
dialogue to Personal Ads to description. This versatility helps
to keep the stories interesting and engaging, as varied as the
subject matter. This is the work of a mature writer who has mastered
her craft as she observes and experiences the world around her.
Landscapes she inhabits or visits become characters in the stories
as well: the North, rural France, Toronto, an apartment with
a child’s drawings on the ceiling and her dying father
in a bed beneath them.
The cumulative effect of this collection will
leave the reader with an increased understanding of a variety
of states of mind, human interactions and experience. If fiction
can transport us into worlds others inhabit, these stories succeed
brilliantly. The book is entitled, “One Day it Happens,” but it
could also be called, “What we all Long for,” safety
and a connection with others and it should be read.
Published in Canadian Woman Studies/les
cahiers de la femme 26
(1) (Winter/Spring 2007).
One Day It Happens
Highlights from a review in the Globe and Mail
Reviewed by Jim Bartley on July 14, 2007
Jan is a volunteer counsellor at a call-in distress centre. In the opening story of Mary Lou Dickinson's collection, the burden of distress shifts decisively on the first page as Jan hears a muffled voice on the line: "There's a bomb in your building." As she calls 911, then alerts co-workers and her boss, the expectation of formulaic drama is quickly laid to rest. This tale's terror is all interior, the sense of dread subtly built and intimately bound up with Jan's past.One Day It Happens presents a family's varied responses to a recent brush with death. It's an unsentimental probing of the ways that our view of past and future, memory and anticipation, can be distorted - or sharply focused - when death suddenly intervenes as the refracting lens…
A Country Weekend builds quietly to an ending that resolves almost nothing, yet hums with character revelations. The bare bones of it are a lakeside cottage, a tired and fractious marriage, and a convalescing husband with a reckless urge to prove himself. Setting, plot and theme are tightly integrated, with the final paragraphs leaping beyond the expected.
The Train Ride is a touching snapshot of a lonely man and a fellow train passenger's fleeting kindness to him, born entirely of the forced proximity. The story concisely makes its double-edged point: We feel for Joe even as we know that, were we captive on that train, we'd gladly have him pass us by…
A… tragic riff takes us into the hallucinatory psyche of a young woman battling the fallout of ritual childhood abuse, or the terrors of self-destructive mental illness - or both. Natalie/Beth's reality comes to us raw, self-contained and uninterpreted, a plunge into waking nightmare…
Two closing stories take us to Venice, then France, in the company of women of a certain age, both drifting in the wake of empty nests and failed marriages. The Euro travel snapshots are evocative…
Characters and locales in the French story intriguingly reprise those of an earlier entry, suggesting fictional paths as yet unexplored.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.