#56 – Once, by Rebecca Rosenblum

I’d been anticipating the release of Rebecca Rosenblum’s debut book since I first read her work in The New Quarterly‘s Salon des Refusés issue (it turns out that I’d been running into her on the blog circuit for quite a few months prior to that, though). I don’t often keep my eye on what’s being published in any given year. I don’t make very much money, and since new books cost more than old books, and I still have a great many classics that I want to read, as a rule I tend to buy and read older books almost exclusively. Once is a worthy exception to this rule. I suppose I might be spoiling the plots of a few of the stories I discuss below, but like with most literary fiction, the plot really isn’t the point (nor is it the best part or Rosenblum’s fiction, so I don’t feel like I’m genuinely spoiling anything).

There is a technique (or a collection of techniques, really), that is sometimes called “magic realism” and is sometimes called by other names. I don’t like any of the names, but I do like the technique, the idea of dressing up fantasy as though it were reality is quite appealing, particularly when it’s done primarily through small, quiet things. Rebecca Rosenblum balances fantasy and reality in an extremely satisfying way. I don’t really like referring to what she does as magic realism—and I’m not sure if she would like it much either—but I can’t think of what else to call it. The two obvious examples to discuss would be the lovely “Chilly Girl” and the less successful “The House on Elsbeth,” but I’d rather talk about “Route 99.” It’s a low-key slice of urban life, something that I think most of us who live in cities within a certain kind of budget can identify with. Except that it isn’t, or at least it isn’t just that. Ella and Carmen, her two protagonists, experiment with a kind of urban thaumaturgy as they wait on the ever unreliable TTC. I don’t doubt that each of us attempts, from time to time, to impose our will on the obstinate world through small, symbolic acts of imagination. Ella and Carmen try to mend their TTC woes by ordering the correct dish from the nearby Vietnamese restaurant (the Pho-Mi 99, which appears in several of my favourite stories in Once), trying each time to achieve a total of 99 with their order, either through addition or subtraction, since there is no number 99 on the menu. With each attempt the Route 99 bus behaves a little differently, until finally, in a miraculous moment:

There wasn’t any smell, there wasn’t any sound. No whoomp of the back seats grinding against their fittings, no roar of the motor, no sign of the bus to the west where she had been looking. It just appeared before them. The driver pulled to a stop even though they were both still sitting. It was Carlson, but when he looked down at them, he didn’t look at their legs, or glare at them, or slam shut the doors. He just smiled, blank, polite, a man doing his job, taking girls to theirs. (p. 41)

It’s no great miracle, but it’s more than many of us ever achieve, and the sense of triumph the reader feels is equal to Ella and Carmen’s disbelief and almost completely out of proportion to the size of the moment. But still, it’s magic.

Another favourite of mine was “The Words.” It takes considerable guts to use multiple viewpoints in any work of short fiction, even more so when it clocks in at a mere dozen pages, but both Joe and Colleen come alive, bundles of nuance, confusion and deception and missed connections. Rosenblum develops the religious imagery smoothly and naturally until it culminates in the only potential moment of communion between father and daughter. I wanted to stay with these characters, and so I was pleased that Colleen showed up again in “Blood Ties,” though seeing through her perspective grated a little without Joe as a balancing force.

Once is an exceptionally strong debut; in fact, if I didn’t know better I’d have a difficult time believing that it was her first collection of stories. Only “The House on Elsbeth” seems to be a freshman effort, but it’s such a difficult concept to work with that I can’t imagine anyone more experienced (except perhaps Leon Rooke himself) having much luck with it. It will be fascinating to see what she does in the future. Rebecca Rosenblum also has a blog out there on the world wide internets, where you can find out about her reading schedule or what’s on her mind, or whatever. You know, blog stuff.

Once was my eleventh selection for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Rust and Bone, by Craig Davidson.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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