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Stories explore relationships between family, friends

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This One Because of the Dead by Laure Baudot (Cormorant Press, 2019)

This One Because of The Dead, Laure Baudot’s first anthology of short stories, was published one year ago. The Toronto-based author, however, had been writing long before the appearance of this debut collection. Her works have appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines. But as she cannily noted about herself, she decided at a young age that becoming a writer “wasn’t a practical decision.”

Years later Baudot changed her mind. After a decade working in academia, with writing as a sideline, Baudot rescinded her youthful decision, restoring to a more central place in her busy life the vocation that was preeminent in her soul.

Baudot is a mother of three as well as an author and a martial arts instructor. Her somewhat unconventional combination of activities, jumbled parental schedules and responsibilities, together with her rugged imagination and sharply delivered insights, often yield provocative stories and an occasional kick to the emotional solar plexus.

This One Because of The Dead brings together 12 stories, which primarily explore the terrain of close, sometimes intimate, interrelationships between family members or friends. Baudot depicts an impressive, eclectic range of storylines and situations. The title of the collection takes its name from a reference in a story that is the self-motivation for a mountain climber to conquer the summit of Mount Everest.

We meet a daughter of Holocaust survivors whose ongoing, obsessive effort to paint the definitive post-Holocaust work interferes with her relationship with her teenage daughter. And we travel with a young couple to Ethiopia in search of a child they hope to adopt. In yet another story, we accompany a young executive from Toronto on a crucial business trip to Tokyo.

These are a representative sampling of the wide string of the pearls of Baudot’s imagination. Irrespective of the geographic centre of the stories, the heart of each piece is the terrain of human insecurity, anxiety and the constant search for that comfortable promontory of individual contentedness within key relationships.

Though not exclusively, in the main, Baudot’s central characters are young. They are adults at the beginning stages of family life, in their careers, or seeking careers. Others are not quite fully adult. We encounter a babysitter, camp counsellors and teenagers enjoying the summer at the cottage.

Similarly, most of Baudot’s characters are vigorously engaged with the outdoors, either as explorers, hikers, climbers or travellers in some form. They are adventurers, though some of them only reluctantly. The tension between characters is the vein of psychology, emotion, aspiration, wishful thinking, self-delusion and self-assertion from which Baudot mines the shining nuggets that form her stories.

She occasionally jolts the reader. A story unfolds along foreseeable lines and then suddenly at the end of the story, Baudot surprises the reader with a deliberately placed ambiguity, a clear implication of something unforeseen.

Baudot is a clever writer, presenting ideas with nuanced argument. For example, in “Siblings”, the teenager Sonya is spending time at her neighbours’ summer home. Her hosts, Arnold and Asta, have invited a guest, Mrs. Thomas, to dinner. The conversation at the table turns to Sonya’s mother, Joy, who is an artist.

“Joy has a growing reputation,” says Arnold. “She is a descendant of survivors. What the Jews call the Shoah.”

“I always forget that you’re a historian,” Mrs. Thomas says. “I wonder though, if there’s anything else to say about the Holocaust.”

Sonya sees herself as a tiny figure pummelling Mrs. Thomas’s face, which is as dense as an acorn. Words fly within her mind like mosquitos and she has trouble choosing which ones to put to Mrs. Thomas. It’s always like this, not finding the thing that fits, not being able to defend her mother when people say things about her.

“If someone is saying something more about it, then there’s more to say,” says Asta.

“Well.” Mrs. Thomas picks up her fork and tidies pork chop bundles into her mouth.”

Baudot uses spare, tight, clipped prose to capture the essence of the person whose true attitude toward Jews many readers recognize and which Baudot expertly unmasks in a mere handful of words.

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The opening paragraph of the story, “Luck”, demonstrates how Baudot, with her characteristic economic prose, skilfully reveals a great deal about a narrator we have just met.

“When Noreen compliments Alison on her cake, Alison smiles a tiny, hardwood canoe of a smile at odds with her pudgy, optimistic face, a face that used to look on the world as if it were one long drink of water. I recognize this smile from the days before I had Archana, back when people told me that losing my pregnancies was for the best.”

In another story, “Stage Presence”, Baudot reflects upon preparation for entering high school. “At one time or another, we’ve all thought of high school as a space of possibility. The evening before my daughter started Grade 9, she talked about the outfit she would wear, as if by wearing the right thing she could control what would happen to her in the subsequent four years. As if overnight, she would become someone other than who she was. Children think they can perpetually make themselves up. They’re optimists that way.”

There is an imperturbable quality to Baudot’s writing. Like some of the characters she has created, she boldly explores the clutter and untidiness of human imperfections. She does not shy away from portraying those imperfections, despite the dark and discomforting corridors of human existence where they occasionally lead her characters.

One might expect some examples of happiness, fulfilment and reward in a collection of 12 stories. But the writer’s prerogative is to tell the stories she wants, not necessarily those that this reader might also like to read. At the end of the book, we must certainly acknowledge Baudot’s literary gifts: imagination, skill and insight.

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