BOOK REVIEW / The past imperative: Across the bridge - Mavis Gallant: Bloomsbury, pounds 9.95

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MAVIS GALLANT narrates her short stories in a voice so quiet and delicate that you have to listen very closely. The shades of her stylistic palette are subdued; her plots tend to fizzle out without denouement, and dramatic events - an abortion, for example - are pushed to the very margins of the canvas. These are stories whose elegant surfaces belie their depths.

The first four stories follow a French Canadian family through three generations, beginning in 1933. Widowed very young, Mme Carette has devoted herself to the upbringing of her daughters, Berthe and Marie, training them 'not to lie, or point, or gobble their food, or leave fingerprints on windowpanes, or handle the parlour curtains'. The oppressive gentility and ultimate emptiness of the Carettes' world is expressed obliquely through descriptive touches: Mme Carette never wears anything brighter than mauve or grey, serves vanilla wafers at tea time, and shuts out the world by hanging at the windows both curtains and blinds, permanently half-drawn.

The effect on Marie is to infantilise her for life. Grown up and about to be manoeuvred into a 'respectable' marriage, she is still afraid of the dark and expects chocolate mice from her suitor. Berthe is more worldly. She works in an office and develops a penchant for married men. Yet despite her own independence, she continues to 'protect' her sister, and when Marie is widowed the pair move in together as Marie grows more and more eccentric in her snobbery and insularity, unable to communicate with her disappointing son in the motel trade in Florida.

The themes of alienation, emotional repression and communication failure resurface in many of the other stories. In 'Kingdom Come', an anthropologist has discovered a remote corner of the Republic of Saltanek whose inhabitants speak a language unknown to outsiders. His own isolation comes to mirror that of the language: he is unable to share the excitement of discovery with his dismissive colleagues, and is exiled from his family. 'A State of Affairs' - one of two stories dealing with Polish emigres in Paris - centres on the elderly Mr Wroblewski, whose senile wife seems to be living entirely in the past.

The past is important to Mavis Gallant. Often, she looks back to an old-fashioned world, either in Canada or Paris, in which bourgeois wives without bank accounts of their own have to ask their husbands for money, and where marriages, if not arranged, are at least negotiated by the couple's parents. Many of her stories work in flashback, which perhaps explains the restrained emotional tone: no explosive passion here, only what is recollected in tranquility. The sense of sepia-tinted melancholy Gallant evokes is matched by her style, and occasionally her technique seems almost too subtle: she leaves us to infer the characters' pain or confusion or self-suppression from a reference to an icy marble floor or a trapped sparrow fluttering under a glass roof. Yet her prose is exceptional in its easy finesse: too fluid to be called deadpan, but always beautifully controlled.

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