Home Truths

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Canadians at home or abroad fill all the stories that make up the collection Home Truths, yet none of the stories carries even a flavor of regionalism. With few exceptions, they are set in the period from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, yet they are not dated. Instead, Mavis Gallant, a Canadian expatriate who lives in Paris, depicts through her characters the human struggle, in any place and at any time, to discover meaning amid uncertainties, to grasp order amid chaos, indeed to learn “home truths.”

Divided into three parts, the collection opens with a group of six stories set in Canada, which Gallant calls “At Home.” In the next section, “Canadians Abroad,” the four stories focus on those who have left their homeland’s security for Europe’s promise of broader experience. The last group of six, entitled “Linnet Muir” after the woman who narrates them, examines what it was like being female in Canada during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

That Gallant named this collection of previously published fiction Home Truths suggests a narrative link throughout. Home, on the literal level, always means Canada, whether those who people the stories are of English or French descent, in Canada or abroad, or occupied with resettling in their native land. Yet this home remains elusive, not quite England or France, even though imitative of both, not quite the United States, although in the shadow of its mighty neighbor. The recurrent quest for national identity, a theme that dominates much writing from the one-time Commonwealth countries, plays freely throughout these stories. “In those days,” Linnet Muir says, “there was almost no such thing as a ’Canadian.’” So the physical home lacks concrete shape, the spiritual home even more so.

Yet the characters continue to seek this spiritual home in order to escape from loneliness, from despair, from isolation, from the burden of pretense, and from the cruelty that one person inflicts on another. The truths they might discover each story points toward but never defines. No home truths appear in Home Truths, only the unsuccessful quest for such. One of the most striking works in the collection, “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” illustrates this point. Peter Frazier and his wife return to Toronto after a failed attempt to do “the international thing,” and at the end of the recounting of their disastrous years abroad, Peter sits in his sister’s apartment recalling a Canadian woman named Agnes with whom he had worked in Switzerland. One night when they had nearly made love, she told him how as a girl she had risen early in a dreary Canadian plains town to see the ice wagon going down the street: “You get up early in the morning in the summer and it’s you, you, once in your life alone in the universe. You think you know everything that can happenNothing is ever like that again.” The hint that the ice wagon contains some kind of metaphysical truth melts away when at the end of the story Peter recalls Agnes’ confession. “Who wants to be alone in the universe?” Peter asks, then reminds himself, “No, begin at the beginning: Peter lost Agnes. Agnes says to herself somewhere, Peter is lost.” Each time the truth about living is about to be seized, it escapes the character’s grasp, and he or she suffers the agony of the unfinished quest, a state that depicts, after all, the essence of the human condition: irony.

The ironic state—that is, the contradiction between what is and what should be—lies at the heart of these stories. For example, in “Thank You for the Lovely Tea,” when the mistress of a schoolgirl’s father takes the girl to tea, it is the child who dominates and makes the older woman ill at ease. “In the Tunnel” traces the adventures of a Canadian girl seeking romance on the French Riviera. Soon she becomes the reluctant mistress of a dull Britisher, formerly a jail inspector in England’s Asian Empire. After a few weeks with the retired inspector and his unbearable expatriate friends, she flees to Canada, only to take up with a man “in terrible trouble—back taxes,...

(The entire section is 1689 words.)