Beth Ryan. What is Invisible. -

Beth Ryan. What is Invisible.

Paul Chafe
Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial University

St. John’s: Killick Press, 2003, ISBN 1-894294-61-0

1 READERS MAY BE SURPRISED to learn that Lisa Moore is not the only woman living in St. John’s producing brilliant short stories. Moore’s Giller Prize nominations for Open and her novel Alligator, and her appearances in several documentaries on Newfoundland and its literature ("The Rocks Here Tell Stories" and "Hard Rock and Water") have secured for her work a predominant and comparatively large position on any Newfoundland bookstore’s "local interest" shelf. Yet tucked away somewhat less prominently along the shelf are wonderful short story collections by other authors, among them Jessica Grant, Libby Creelman, and Beth Ryan. Most notably, Beth Ryan’s What is Invisible is a treasure waiting to be discovered. Ryan’s stories brim with the vivid detail that seems to be the calling card of her fellow Burning Rock writers, yet her writing possesses a realism, an immediacy, and an accessibility that is sometimes lacking in the more impressionistic work of her colleagues.

2 As Wayne Johnston notes in his blurb on the back of the text, "What is Invisible takes us all over the wonderful city of St. John’s and beyond." Ryan’s stories deal largely with Newfoundlanders, though they are not always in Newfoundland. The opening and arguably best story is set in Fort McMurray, and focuses on the Newfoundland workers and their families who have migrated to Alberta to work the oil fields. "Northern Lights" is an intriguing examination of both the stability and shift in the character of an individual who participates in a mass exodus. The rather reserved Walter is trying his best to enjoy the 25th wedding anniversary of fellow expatriates in the surreal surroundings of Newfoundland shifted 7,000 kilometres west:They could have been in the Legion back home for all anyone could tell. A two-piece band from Placentia is playing — one guy on electric guitar and the other on an electronic keyboard that imitates everything from a piano to a full brass band. A team of women is in the kitchen keeping an eye on the pots of pea soup and turkey soup simmering on the industrial-sized stoves. And, like home, everyone in the place is linked by blood or marriage or history with just about everyone else. (1)Walter counters the increased sense of community that comes with diaspora with a dose of ironic distance: "People who you barely spoke to back home become your best pals when you’re living thousands of miles from home" (3). There is a sense of claustrophobia throughout this story, as Walter jokes, "Can’t swing a cat around here without hitting someone from home" (14). There is also a sense of desperation, as Walter, surrounded even in this new town with so many people who knew him "back home," has regrettably carried his wallflower reputation with him to Fort McMurray. Yet, as in several of her stories, Ryan (literally) opens the door to change within the comforts and confines of community.

3 The individual as s/he exists within a close-knit community is the focus of several of these stories, and there is not a weak link in this chain. Though some readers may find the twist at the end of "The Lizard’s Skin" slightly less profound or shocking than it might have been several years ago, it is still a wonderful and amusing depiction of one person’s failed attempt at a romantic respite from home. Particularly strong are "The Patron Saint of Hitchhikers," which examines the shifting power dynamic among a trio of teenage girlfriends, and "Light Fingers," which details how one will often place social acceptance over happiness. The latter story focuses on the so-close-to-being-requited relationship between Philomena who works in the restaurant at Woolworth’s and Miguel, the "soft-eyed, beautiful, exotic" Portuguese sailor so unlike the "big, thick and stunned or small, sly, and weasel-faced" boys she grew up with (118). Miguel has finally asked the lovestruck Philomena "to the movie show at the Paramount theatre" (121), and "Philly" ("Miguel says ‘Fee-lee’ and it sounds beautiful, like a soap opera name") [119] floats through the middle of the story until being brought up short by Derek King, who works in the sports department: "the only girls who go out with the Portuguese are whores" (124). The culminating scene, when Philomena tells Miguel "I don’t think I can go out with you," is heart-rending:Philomena folds her arms firmly across her chest, trying to look stern. She turns away from Miguel’s crumpled face for a second, ashamed that she’s the one who is making him look so sad. She sees Derek King watching her from his post in the sporting goods department.... staring a straight line across the store that burrows right into her forehead.... "I can’t go. I just can’t. I should never have said yes in the first place.... We have no business being with each other." (126)The communities of What is Invisible provide place as readily as they impose limitations, and it is in Ryan’s depiction of these characters maintaining the former while pushing against the latter, that these stories truly come to life.

4 It is in the titles of these stories that the opposing and dominant forces of this collection are made evident: "Going Home," "Distance," "Family Business," and "Touching Down." Each story is preoccupied in some way with the concept of home, leaving it, returning to it, or leaving it without ever really leaving it. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry puts it in the passage Ryan has chosen as an epigraph: "what is essential is invisible to the eye." These characters carry essential parts of themselves and their communities with them whether they are going on vacation, moving away for work, or losing their jobs. These individuals as they are moving or being moved from their home community always carry with them this former self. This connection is invisible, yet it leaves a permanent and distinguishing mark on each of these transitory characters. Ryan’s realistic depiction of these complex characters in flux is what makes this collection so engaging and enjoyable.



Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. ISSN: 1715-1430