‘How You Were Born’ by Kate Cayley

How You Were Born coverReviewed by Brock Peters

Kate Cayley’s How You Were Born begins with a family coping with a death and ends with the same family, years before, preparing for a birth. Thematically this arc underpins the entire collection, as characters struggle with aging and loss as well as with the disappointment that emerges when life doesn’t work out quite how they’d hoped. The eleven stories in this collection are taut and poignant, and collectively represent a strong debut in adult fiction for Cayley. She has previously worked prolifically as a playwright, while also finding time to publish a young adult novel (The Hangman in the Mirror, 2011) and a collection of poetry (When This World Comes to an End, 2013). This book was a finalist for the 2015 Governor General’s Award, and won the 2015 Trillium Book Award.

“Resemblance” is a curious choice for the first story, but turns out to be representative of the collection as a whole. Molly and Robin are taking their ten-year-old daughter Emma to visit her biological grandmother in the wake of a complex family tragedy: Jake, a close friend of the couple who served as their sperm donor, has died of an aneurism at forty. The story begins on the highway, with a literal sense of momentum; soon, however, it fragments into a series of different perspectives and memories, as each character copes with their loss and with this new, uncomfortable, but ultimately hopeful situation. A slow start, then, but one that’s rich with poignancy of an almost universal nature. Jake’s mother “imagines herself moving unknowing” as her son dies far away, evoking a visceral feeling of loneliness even as her surrogate family speeds towards her intent on creating a relationship upon the foundation of their loss.

Memory and regression are at the core of many stories in the collection: an aging ex-academic finds himself “out of date” compared to his ambitious and young sixth wife; three siblings are compelled to put their 90-year-old father into a care home, but the eldest is concerned that such confinement is causing him to relive his imprisonment in Buchenwald under the Nazis; a young researcher interviews a “remarkably old” woman while working to preserve American folk history, only to find that she, like many others, has internalized and subsequently recounts the very same “tall tales.” Age, too, seems to be a central concern, as the stories often seem to deal either with the growth of the young or the decay of the old.

These stories are realist, technically tight, and written in a taut top skor, precise style. And while it seems like poor old Raymond Carver—or David Bergen, here on the Prairies—finds himself invoked every time the phrase “spare prose” is uttered, he’s certainly a forebear, whether consciously or otherwise, of the style of writing Cayley deploys here. This perhaps leads to my primary quibble with the collection as a whole. These stories are often told in spurts, sprinkled with memories and observations and recollections, and their sparse, realist style foregrounds what often feels like a missing degree of narrative arc. And while it would be impossible to argue that short fiction requires a traditional linear narrative—one need look no further than Borges to refute such an idea—in Cayley’s case the form of the narrative feels just slightly out of sync with the style of the prose.

Cayley is at her strongest when she weaves elements of uncertainty and mystery into her stories. In “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis,” two young siblings spy on their neighbours, a pair of elderly men who keep their windows covered with newspaper and the nature of whose relationship remains mysterious to the very end. “Blind Poet” features a young woman afflicted with macular degeneration who has an intense and perplexing relationship with an unpredictable artist named Marianne. This is perhaps the strongest story in the collection, weaving Cayley’s astute command of mood, utilized here to make the story feel almost claustrophobic, with a modern-day mythological awareness. The narrator observes that when “a stranger arrives, pounds on your door, or shows up at the foot of the bed[,] you ask them in, even if they are soaked with rain, battered by wind, and dangerous, even if they are worse than dangerous.” It’s a story that leaves the reader wishing we could follow the characters even after it ends, as they leave the apartment in which their relationship was confined, to see what transpires as they part ways.

The explicit echo between the first and the last story adds an element of continuity to the collection that is lamentably absent in far too many short story collections; though the complex similarity of themes in Cayley’s stories would perhaps have sufficed to lend the book cohesion, the decision to provide a concrete bookend on either side, and what’s more, to set the last story chronologically earlier than the first, makes this work feel like a complete entity. It highlights the collection’s regressive themes, as the readers end up further back than when they started. Personal inclination will determine whether or not this is a satisfying denouement.

And in a book full of dysfunctional relationships, many of them similarly regressive (particularly among the parental figures, who are often seen withdrawing from their family responsibilities in favour of vague aspirations to personal fulfilment), we are left feeling hopeful by this Robin/Molly/Emma recurrence. Despite the discouragement through which we have been guided, as we watch characters struggle with desperate situations, we can be anchored throughout by this single family struggling towards rather than away from a loving, meaningful union.


Pedlar | 180 pages | $22.00 | paper | ISBN# 978-1897141656

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