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Fictional memoir describes family experiences

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Tilya Gallay Helfield is a visual artist who has written stories and poems since childhood. Born and bred in Ottawa, she currently calls Toronto home. However, her fiction often returns to Beacon Street in Ottawa, where she lived from 1940, when she was seven, until she left for university about 10 years later.

Originally, her stories were amusing recollections of family and friends told to her children at bedtime. Gradually these tales evolved into weightier explorations of characters and events integral to Ottawa’s close-knit Jewish community during World War II.

In 2015, Imago Press published Metaphors for Love, a collection of 20 linked stories by Helfield. Though nine of these stories were previously published, the work reads like a novel.  Each story drops us into an episode of Ruth’s life as seen through her eyes. The book spans several decades, although many of the tales take place in the 1940s. Humorous, forthright about the biases and prejudices expressed by Jews and non-Jews, and at times sorrowful, this fictional memoir examines the evolution of a particular mid-20th-century Jewish Canadian family within the context of the Jewish community in Ottawa. Thus, Metaphors for Love takes readers into literary territory often obscured by fiction set in Montreal, Toronto or Winnipeg.

Helfield’s writing is like a beautifully detailed landscape that gives readers an acute sense of place and snapshots of the characters that populate it. Through Ruth we experience lazy summer days in Ottawa, evenings seated with family around the Philco radio, school travails, loss caused by war, the loneliness of not being seen or heard… the surprise of arriving at an unplanned destination in life.

Helfield’s artistic eye and her ear for dialogue bring to life a range of characters. Though Helfield doesn’t shy from presenting tragic moments, and ably sketches individuals through allusion, she can be cautious about describing people and relationships in strong, definite terms. Rather, her approach is more empathetic and generous. This is especially true of the writing that explores Ruth’s younger years or that describes Ruth’s parents.

For instance, Helfield discloses that Ruth’s father’s judgmental nature may be a result of a traumatic childhood experience and explains that Ruth’s mother was obsessively frugal due to economic circumstances. But Helfield doesn’t describe how Ruth’s father’s pronouncements and her mother’s attitude toward money shaped Ruth’s views or confidence.

Neither does Helfield give voice to Ruth’s feelings when her father doesn’t console her after she’s been hurt and bullied by a gang of anti-Semitic youths. And Ruth seems inarticulate when her mother forces her to wear a mess of a dress to her high school prom. These seem to be traumatic experiences. Is Ruth overwhelmed?

Since we readers don’t have enough information about early family relationships, we are not prepared when we meet the people Ruth and her siblings have become as adults. We don’t know why there is little consistent connection among the four. We don’t know why Joan has become a harsh pragmatist or why she is unhappy. We don’t know why Ray has become an amateur con artist or why Deena, the youngest, is drowning in an emotional-psychological mire.

Helfield’s stories about Ruth and her family’s later years are more naked and direct. Characters express their feelings. Relationships are clearly painted. We encounter complicated people whose behaviour may be more nasty than nice. We may not admire them, but we are intrigued by their stories.

Overall, Helfield’s book is an appealing journey across eras and generations and a thoughtful exploration of the complexities of family life.