You Can’t Stay Here

By Merna Summers

by Jasmina Odor
Thistledown Press
2017/$18.95/256 pp.

Frank O’Connor, the great Irish author, described a writer as one who sets a mirror in the roadway and then goes about describing what he or she sees reflected there. Edmonton author Jasmina Odor discerns many things in her mirror, an important one being the nature of time itself: its effects on people and the difficulty they sometimes find in moving from one life stage into another.

The 13 stories in this debut collection are set against backgrounds that range from the war-torn Balkans to cities in Europe and Canada. (Odor herself was born in Croatia and emigrated to Canada in 1993.) Many of her characters seem to lead what novelist Anne Tyler has referred to as “a slipping-down kind of life,” an aspect emphasized when characters appear in more than one story, the time between them having changed things significantly. One young woman, who leads a more or less normal life in her first story, has, by the time the second begins, had a child she is not permitted to see. We get an idea of what her life has become when she trespasses on a private lawn to eat doughnuts with a homeless couple.

In the first of a second pair of linked stories, the possibility of disgrace suddenly looms for a happy and affectionate family. In the follow-up story some years on, both mother and daughter appear to have lost all resilience, as if action is no longer a thing possible. Nothing is permanent, these stories remind us, and time and events can change people. Another overlying theme is put into words by one of the characters: “It’s funny how we suddenly become what we are without noticing it.”

Some of Odor’s characters are clear-eyed and well able to take care of themselves. Ivona, a Croat immigrant and a night hostess in a restaurant, understands what is going on when the owner seeks her out. “This dreamy look in his eyes,” she thinks, “this fake dreamy look, fake husky voice, mockery of seduction. He doesn’t even really want me.”

Variety is the spice of characterization in these stories. One young woman is prepared to break up with her boyfriend because she finds his aunt repulsive; another keeps her life in a state of crisis so the people who care about her—men mostly—will intervene. A particularly devastating story concerns an old Croat man who refuses to leave his home, even when it becomes part of the war’s front line. Odor studied writing at the University of Alberta with one of Canada’s best short story writers, Greg Hollingshead. The subtle, insightful and compassionate stories in this collection show her to be a writer worth watching.

Merna Summers is an Edmonton writer.

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