Event Review - Street Symphony

Reviewed by: Carol Mathews

Despite what people say, sometimes you do get the sense of a book from its cover. Rachel Wyatt's Street Symphony shows the crossings and intersections of a street map whose occupants are unseen. It is quirky but cheerful[...]

Wyatt, an award-winning author with a string of publications including novels, non-fiction, stage and radio plays, is known for her dark humour and sudden surprises. Her work has been called 'wry' and 'sly'; it is certainly challenging, inviting multiple readings. In this 17-story collection, she creates a captivating and complicated collage of people, with many characters to keep track of (a fast scan revealing more than 120). Most are minor, some reappearing, and all the voices remain with you as part of Wyatt's street symphony, the leitmotif of which is the question on the sign one character, Joy, carries: 'Are you content to be nothing?' The strength of Wyatt's writing lies in her precise, clear dialogue, not surprising in this author of dozens of radio plays. The characters' voices are strong and compelling and together they create a convincing chorus for which Wyatt is the conductor with a sure hand on her baton, another feature of the book's cover.

Wyatt's people have many secrets--adulterous affairs, lost jobs, smuggled diamonds, pornographic websites, questionable relationships--and they create problems. But, as Arvin says in 'Aquarium,' 'Nothing is hidden. You might go into a dark place and whisper a few words and lock the door to keep those words trapped inside, but they will get out.' Peculiar as these individuals may be, their difficulties are, for the most part, the kinds of challenges we all experience in everyday life: the death of a loved one, loss of a job, worries about relatives.

Anyone who has been at a creative writing retreat will appreciate The Grove in 'Go, Dad, Go!' and 'Woman at the Bar,' with its mixed lot of 'Decent, searching people' and inevitable lentil casseroles. Ella, with her 'too-flowery clothes and man-eater smile,' the only published writer at the workshop, appears again in the subsequent story, 'Dinosaurs,' establishing what seems to be a promising relationship. Jody, the workshop leader, reappears in 'Woman at the Bar,' at the end of which she too has established a new direction. The stories are linked in subtle ways, with recurring locations and repeated references to Joy's placard; reflecting the characters' dissatisfactions and aspirations. When Joy's ex-husband's new partner, a realtor, sees the sign, she reflects on whether or not she is nothing, but feels a leap of hope when she emerges from her car to meet her clients.

In a particularly poignant story, 'Pandora's Egg,' a soldier who has been traumatized by memories of bloodshed and death is now childlike and housebound, spending his days constructing birdhouses. Filing a rough spot on his final egg-shaped creation causes him to accidentally wound his wife, who smashes his creation, the shock of which triggers his recovery. Although he still sometimes cries out in the night, we are given a hopeful sense that what has been broken can be fixed.

At times these characters are confounding, but this is not surprising, given the community of individuals whose lives are concealed yet oddly recognizable. And there is redemption. If one thing links these characters it is that, despite many setbacks, dead ends and reversals in their quests, they continue to try to do something, be something. At the conclusion of the final story, 'Cinq à Sept,' after a disastrous party, after developers move into the neighbourhood, and after James and Teresa finally hear the news that their daughter, a volunteer aid worker, has been found safe from the tsunami, James is out in the backyard, building himself a shed. This sign of hopefulness, more than anything else, links these stories and returns us to the book's epigraph: Emily Dickinson's '"Hope" is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul -.'

This review was part of a larger review that first appeared in Event Magazine, Volume 44, Number 3

Share this Post: Facebook Twitter Google Plus