BOOK REVIEW / Life, but not as we know it: 'We So Seldom Look on Love' - Barbara: Flamingo, 5.99

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The Independent Culture
CANADIAN Barbara Gowdy's third book is original and daring, never glib, though nearly always entertaining. In eight stories, Gowdy pulls us quickly into the lives of her characters - the life (or lives) of a two-headed man, or Siamese twins named Sylvie and Sue, or foster children who are blind or epileptic, or children who are hydrocephalic or hyperactive, or a wife who exhibits herself in the nude, daily, for a voyeur in a neighbouring building. Or a woman whose child has been decapitated by a ceiling fan.

In the title story, a young woman makes necrophilic love at the funeral home where she has a part-time job: strange as it may sound, this story is sweet, funny and charming. And shrewd: 'I think that all desire is desire for transformation,' the narrator asserts, 'and that all transformation - all movement, all process - happens because life turns into death.' Earlier, the narrator, talking about her 'addiction', has said that 'I really had no idea that I was jumping across a vast behavioural gulf.' Gowdy convinces us that people who may be said to have crossed this gulf are not very different from those of us who have remained on one side.

In the last and longest story, 'Flesh of My Flesh,' Marion learns that her new husband, Sam, is a woman who has been taking hormones to prepare for the final physical transformation into a man. When Marion was 19, her mother was murdered. 'She starts to cry . . . She buries her face in the pillow so that Sam won't hear. She wants her mother. She knows better, but year after year her heart goes on pumping out love as if all it knows is circulation . . .'

Gowdy involves the reader by her artful narrative structures, as well as by the good humour and energetic intelligence of her characters. The protagonists here, for all their seeming oddity, are socially as well as psychologically developed, so that they exist in a wide network of relatives and friends. These eight stories are surgically painful and precise, yet they lead to an enlarged, embracing sense of life. This is fiction that vivifies.