A review of Chez l’arabe by Mireille Silcoff

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Chez l’arabe
by Mireille Silcoff
Toronto, 2014, ISBN: 978-77089-469-3, $19.95

The eight stories in Mireille Silcoff’s collection, Chez l’arabe have a common theme, the shock and confusion we feel when faced with a nasty twist of fate. The central character of “Champ de Mars” is very human in her belief that the terrible pain she suffered over her child’s death “would absolve her from future hardship…she’d absorbed the blow, remained upright. Surely, for this, some kind of immunity?” Alas, life seldom works out that way, though some of Silcoff’s fictional characters fare better than others.

Four of the stories, including the title one, are presented in the first person by a Montreal woman in her early thirties, who has endured successive surgeries because her spinal cord tissue tears, resulting in loss of fluid that cushions and stabilizes her brain. In the face of this serious illness, she deserves sensitive, high-quality care and unconditional emotional support, but she doesn’t receive it. Even so, she is brave, humorous and ironic. Her husband can’t cope with the disappearance of her fun-loving self, and either goes out or sits in another room; the household help quits, and her overprotective mother wants her to be little and dependent. Then, a kindly cab driver, Mohammed, who takes her to her acupuncturist, tells her about the lunch bar of delicious Iranian food which has just opened in a nearby corner store. One noon hour, she struggles there on foot for take-out because no one has made provision for her lunch. Samira, the “mom” of this mom-and-pop business, formerly an Iranian doctor, appears at her house offering to bring her lunch each day. This satisfactory arrangement goes on briefly until the woman’s territorial mother intervenes, ruining the daughter’s attempt at normality and independence.

In “Shalom Israel!” the possessive mother is excited to attend a concert celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, where she hopes to reconnect with the dance choreographer who discovered her years earlier as a talented young beauty in Israel. This dream is dashed, and the daughter, who knows that her mother has had her hopes blighted significantly several times during her life, is kind, although her mother gets on her nerves.

“Appalachian Spring” involves the same protagonist, who gets fed up with her overly solicitous, oppressive family members and flies away to a New Agey artist-colony town in California to recover alone. She discovers that her rental house was once owned by an artist romantically involved with Aaron Copeland, who composed the famous “Appalachian Spring”, in praise of America’s open spaces. Identifying with the lovers’ freedom, the woman researches them, a project likely to buoy up her spirits and perhaps lead her back to her writing career. Events conspire against her, though, and in the end it seems that “paradise would dwell beyond [her] personal horizon.”

In “Flower Watching”, the woman’s hope of pregnancy is symbolized by the Japanese custom of observing a bud become a bloom. Other stories with other central characters also show Ms. Silcoff’s flair for language and insights about the human condition. “Davina” centres on Anne, in her thirties, a “guru of a recklessly baroque sort of domesticity”, who writes books on the art of entertaining and is famous for her dinner parties. The story opens as she is planning her first since her divorce. Her ex, and perhaps we, the readers, find her work trivial. Then we are taken back in time to her childhood, when her stepmother Davina, an elegant cook and hostess, created a home of beauty, order and comfort for her. Young Anne felt safe when she went to sleep with one of Davina’s cookbooks poised like a tent over her heart. When Anne’s father divorces Davina, Anne spends time in a room painted “ice drift” in his windy, glassy condo, but she never forgets Davina and the warmth she provided. Remembering Davina lifts her spirits, and, as the story closes, she goes out into the Canadian autumn like Mrs. Dalloway, to shop for her party – her art form.

“Complimentarity” centres on a wealthy sixty-five year old woman who does volunteer work (organizing the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Ball). Upset over her mother’s death, humiliated by her husband’s desertion, and lonely, she welcomes a self-invited house guest, a fiftyish woman friend. Gradually she realizes that her experiences with this friend parallel those with her cheating husband. In the end, she asserts herself and reaches out to her social network with anecdotes about her thieving visitor.

Mireille Silcoff, a columnist for Canada’s National Post newspaper, also writes for New York Times Magazine and other publications. She is the author of three books on youth culture. Like most fiction, the stories in Chez l’arabe appear to be a blend of real life experiences and invention, for, in a Montreal Gazette interview with Ian McGillis (08/07/2014) Silcoff said she’d found it interesting to create stories inside her head at a time when the story outside her head was “pretty awful”. Silcoff lives with the same condition as the first person narrator in the four related stories and began writing short fiction in stints of fifteen minutes a day while bedridden. Now a mother, she maintains a writing career by carefully managing her expenditure of energy. Her outstanding stories, with their striking word use and understanding of human nature, make one hope that she will write more.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta is the author of three collections of short stories, A Wild Streak, Save the Last Dance for Me, and Winter Moon. Visit her books blog at http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com