"Cheating At Canasta"

Cheating At Canasta by William Trevor

I am living proof of the folly of judging a book by it's cover. I was looking forward to reading this novel, loaned to me by a friend. I found the title appealing, thinking for some odd reason that it sounded light-hearted, which I don't usually look for at all but I've read several seriously heavy books lately and I'm looking for something with at least a little bit of hope in it.

I read the first chapter. Ok, it's not going to be light-hearted, but I'm no quitter so on to chapter two.

New characters in a new situation are introduced. I wait to see how they relate to chapter one, but chapter one characters never come back. I begin to think this is the strangest way of writing a novel I've ever seen, but then what do I know, so I continue.

Chapter 3 introduces another set of characters in another new situation. No connection at all to the characters in the first or second chapters. What?

Thinking this author is insane, I decide to break my very firm rule of not reading the summary of the book on the inside of the dust jacket. I have this rule because I don't like to start reading with an opinion already planted in my mind; I know it's sad to be so easily swayed but there you have it. Even sadder than that is what I found.

It's not a novel; it's a collection of short stories. Of course it is. Anyone with even a couple of brain cells would have known that. Wondering how I could be so unbelievably dense, I rethink the two stories I've already read and see them in a totally new light. Oh look at that; they make sense.

I am deservedly humiliated and offer the author my apologies for any assumptions I made concerning his sanity. In a pathetic attempt at self-defense, it really didn't say on either the front or back of the jacket that the book contained short stories and I had never read this author before. Not enough to save me from a "really dumb reader" conviction, but right now it's all I've got.

Slinking sheepishly back to the book, I realize I was also wrong about the title. These stories are not in any way light-hearted, but instead are a somber look at the sadder side of life, full of inevitability and resignation. There's a story about a man who accidentally kills a child, one about a marriage that is destroyed by silence, one in which a youth violently kills another youth whom he mistakenly believes has wronged his sister, and one where an innocent priest is blackmailed by a miscreant from his community. The rest of the stories all stay within the "life really is awful but I'll resign myself to it" theme of the collection.

For the most part I enjoyed the writing itself, although in several places I found the wording awkward. It wasn't anything glaring, just arrangements of phrases that stopped me and made me go back to re-read those sentences. There was some cultural muddle as well; in one story, set in Ireland, the main character spoke in a way that I'm sure is familiar to the Irish, but had me stumped at times.

A few of the stories have stayed with me since I read them. They were also the ones that when I was reading I wished were full novels rather than short stories. The author draws the reader into the story immediately and because they are short stories they end quickly, leaving you wanting more. He writes wonderful characters that I'd like to get to know better and with whom it's easy to sympathize. 

These are all well told stories, I just wish I had read them at another time; I'm almost positive I would have liked the book better. I enjoy angst as well as, and maybe more than, the next person, but after the heavy topics dealt with in recent reads "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter", "The Lost Symbol" and "The Alchemist", all the bleak tales of people resigned to their miserable fates were just a bit too much. I will try one of his novels eventually, but right now I need a happy book. And I think I'll get it in "My Life In France", coming next.


Nicki Orser: said...

Hi Dianne,

Thanks for the sweet comments on the 3 sisters blog. I loooove your blog! So many books, so little time.

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