Thought-provoking and heartrending, The Falling Woman resonates long after the book has closed and is a collection to read again and again.
Shaena Lambert’s remarkable debut short story collection, part of our new Vintage Tales series, examines the universal themes of love, loss and healing. All ten stories, whether they are set in the dry, sage-covered hills of the Okanagan or on the serenely polluted shores of Lake Ontario, are linked thematically by an archetypal icon: the falling woman. She rushes through the air upside down, transformed by what she has seen, or is about to recognize. Never quite fallen — always in transition — she insists on plunging into the forbidden: marching down Main Street topless; seducing married men; exploring the shadowy losses that predate her birth but still manage to stamp her being.
Shaena Lambert’s perceptive eye and flair for evocative and sensual prose bring the under-surface of relationships — between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives — to brilliant light.close this panel
The day of Daniel’s confession started in an ordinary way, with a call from Kaye’s mother – a beginning that Kaye would examine in detail later (poking at it, parsing it), trying to find clues to what she had known and what she hadn’t. In the morning she hadn’t known what was going to happen, but by the time she went to bed she knew everything. In between she found out that her husband was sleeping with a girl of twenty-six, a master’s student of his from the environmental studies department, a girl who might have been a younger, shabbier, messier version of Kaye herself. Or at least one part of herself – the lean, uncompromising self she had been at one time.
But the day had begun as those days usually did, with the scramble to pack a lunch for Sarah, the hasty goodbyes at the door, the moment of silence – then the call from Kaye’s mother.
“Kaye!” Margaret exclaimed lavishly, making Kaye wince.
“Mother!” Kaye exclaimed back. “Why do you always sound surprised when it’s me? You’re the one phoning.”
Kaye’s mother threw back her head and laughed richly. What a lark her daughter was. What a perfect straight man. Kaye knew her mother had thrown back her head and laughed even though she couldn’t see her, she was that present in the room. Like a very large ghost, she filled the area above Kaye’s head with her dyed ash-blond hair, her burgundy nails, her legs stubbled with persistent growth. She had yards and yards of female pulchritude. A hideous word, yes, but one that Kaye had chosen long ago to describe her mother’s particular kind of beauty.
“Now listen, honey, have you got a minute? Has Daniel left? Has Sarah left for school?”
They had left, it was true. And it was also true that no matter how irritated Kaye sometimes felt at the sound of her mother’s voice, she liked these calls, she waited for these calls.
They were close, mother and daughter. They had stuck together through thick and thin. Thick mother, thin daughter, Kaye thought – because sometimes it felt like that; as though her mother, that plentiful and immense woman, cast such a shadow, and contained so much, that she contained even Kaye herself.
People noticed their closeness. They compared Margaret with their own mothers, in their late fifties or early sixties, and said that Kaye was lucky, because her mother was so interesting, so alive. Other mothers had receded, becoming pale, or frosty, or diffident; or taking up causes. Daniel’s mother had become a pro-choice activist in Sudbury, defying the church, defying her husband. Interesting, of course – but nothing to match the livid, arresting quality that Margaret gave off.
At fifty-nine she was in her prime, magnificently in her prime, like a full-blown moon – carrying all her past selves inside. Retired actress. Radio host. Now she and Kaye’s father had bought a sailboat, and they headed up the coast each summer scouting for northwest coast sculptures, bartering, collecting. She had become known for her talent, her eye. Someone famous in Ketchikan had even given her a Tlingit name.
Now Margaret was telling Kaye a story about Kaye’s father. He had become a source of bafflement and amusement to them since he had retired. They watched him as though he were a peculiar and interesting bird – something, perhaps, with a rare, proboscis-like beak. Last month he had started reading Proust – five pages a night. “He always hated Proust!” Margaret said to Kaye. “His mother made him read Proust to her in that ugly room she never left, with aspidistra hanging from the bedstead. I can’t believe he’s reading Proust.” But this was nothing compared with what he had done the day before on their yacht. It had been a suddenly warm day for October, an Indian summer day, and Margaret, in a mood of celebration, had peeled off her shirt, slathered her breasts with baby oil and stretched out on the foredeck. Giles had slipped away from the wheel to get his sunglasses, forgotten why he’d gone below deck and settled in for a little nap.
“Kaye – picture it – all at once we’re careening towards an enormous freighter from Taiwan. I had to crawl across the deck, throw something over me, grab the wheel. Meanwhile, about fifteen deckhands had caught sight of me, and they were all cheering madly.”
As was so often the case, once her mother got going, Kaye felt something dark stirring inside her: a feeling that her mother had escaped scot-free, gotten away with the gold or some such thing, while she – Kaye – was caught. Punished.
“Listen,” Margaret continued. “I read something in the Sun this morning and I thought you’d get a kick out of it. Apparently there’s this real estate agent in Topeka, Kansas – and guess what he’s doing.”
“Mother, I couldn’t possibly.”
“He’s buying up abandoned missile silos all over the Midwest and he’s turning them into houses. Can you imagine! And apparently people are buying them like hotcakes.”
“Perfect for the nuclear family.”
“Oh, honey – when I read that, I couldn’t help thinking of you, back in your anti-nuclear days. You could be so ornery.”
“Not precisely how I remember it, Mother.”
“Oh, come on. You were damned ornery, you have to admit it. Do you remember that time you destroyed our dinner party?”
Kaye’s heart was beating slightly faster. Of course she remembered. It was a frequent memory, a talisman, something she carried with her even now, almost twenty years later.
It was back when her parents lived in Shaughnessy and she was in first-year university. She had plunked herself down on the burgundy couch in the living room and one of her mother’s friends had asked her, just casually, what she was doing to keep herself busy. Kaye had answered that she and some other students were organizing a viewing of If You Love This Planet.
“Oh, Helen Caldicott,” Lena Marsden had shrieked. “She’s ghastly.”
“A ghoul, darling. She’s a ghoul!”
“She’d be more bearable if she got her facts straight.” This was from one of the straight men – an accountant, like her father. One of the dull spouses.
It was then that Kaye had risen into the air – or so it had felt – springing out of her seat to float above them, an angel of vengeance and light. Then she had described, point by point, what the effect would be of a nuclear bomb dropped on Vancouver. Yes, she had done this a bit breathlessly; yes, with a red face and palpitating heart; but nevertheless she had recited the whole thing – the sacred litany of destruction – from the fallout floating up as far as the troposphere, to the lack of burn beds, the disease, the lacerations, decapitations, wind fires. “And if you did survive in a fallout shelter,” she had said, “when you came out, there would be rotting corpses everywhere – because ninety percent of Vancouver’s population would be dead – and the survivors would soon die too, from a synergistic combination of starvation, radiation, sunburn, infection and grief.”
At which point – at least in Kaye’s recollection – her mother had stood up and said, in her rich actor’s voice, that she did hope everyone was ready for dinner.
“You were the absolute death of dinner parties,” Kaye’s mother said now, always thrilled by a spectacle, even in retrospect.
And what could Kaye possibly say in response? She looked out the window at the clear sky and a plane high up, like a toy, heading towards the airport.
She wanted to say that perhaps her mother should rethink her attitude. Had the prospect of nuclear war really been all that funny? In the old days that’s what she would have said, and for a second she wished that she could still be that single-minded. The insistence of the young. We are born once, they had sung. Born for a purpose. And they had circled the weapons, singing and crying, throwing
their bodies again and again against this huge dark wall, this impenetrable thing.
But that was over now. She wasn’t that person any more. And people were living in the silos that she had prayed in front of. Turning them into condos.
Shaena Lambert’s poetry and short stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most prestigious literary magazines, including Descant, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire and Prism International. Her story “The Falling Woman” appeared in the 1995 Journey Prize Anthology and was shortlisted for the CBC/Saturday Night short fiction contest. She lives in Vancouver.close this panel
"In Shaena Lambert’s fluent début, the closely observed details of dailyness sometimes enrich traditionally realistic stories while at other times they mix neatly with elements of the fantastic and the outlandish. The Falling Woman is generously varied in its range of stories, images, themes, styles – I kept reading sentences to myself aloud – and also in its cast and characterizations, which may be what Lambert does best of all. " — Steven Heighton, author of The Shadow Boxer
"Like Alice Munro's work, Lambert's stories showcase intelligent women with complex inner lives negotiating the intricacies of relationships with lovers, children, and parents ... Lambert's voice is entirely her own ... It is a poet's voice, sensual and evocative .. There are genuine emotions, striking images, and well-wrought wisdom here. The Falling Woman is an excellent debut." — Quill & Quire, March 2002
“What an exhilarating pleasure it is to open a first book of fiction and feel that you've returned to the source, that here before you, amid all the commendable, promising, earnest or quirky, really quite good or utterly underwhelming first steps of countless budding authors, lovingly mentored, carefully or hastily edited, placed between handsome or salacious covers…. I'll simplify: Among all the serviceable, sometimes glittering plate, appears Vancouver writer Shaena Lambert, a rare gift of sterling…. The Muse is plying her work in these stories; that, or perhaps the living spirits of Alice Munro and Annie Proulx have plumed and mingled in the ether and spawned a hybrid miniaturist (Proulx's stories being her truest art) who has the potential, realized here in scintillant flashes, to rival them both…. [O]utstanding and often brilliant -- in their gimlet-eyed observation, their bursts or nuances of insight, and their seamless conjoining of form and content." -- The Globe and Mail, Feb. 2002
“Shaena Lambert’s The Falling Woman is a marvelous first story collection with nothing green or fledgling about it…. her debut collection is remarkable for its mature craft, polished material and dark vision…. The stories here are sometimes unsettling, but always thought-provoking. Lambert’s writing is packed with “significances” … She forces the reader to grapple for underlying meanings, and they are not usually simple or reducible. Lambert’s intelligent, carefully wrought debut collection has been a long time in the making, and shows it. Now, if there is any justice, may it bring her overnight success.” -- The Toronto Star, Mar. 2002
“The stories are remarkable … for the extent to which the characters come alive…. All of the stories are told in a clear, understated prose that never hits a false note. Lambert’s stories are notable as well for the extent to which they bring alive their place, their locale. I would like to see stories like these taught in our high schools…. We are producing a literature in this country that is second to none in the world…. In Shaena Lambert, we have a writer with the ability to layer experience so that one layer subtly comments on another, a writer with Alice Munro’s understanding of the human heart and with Yann Martel’s gift for inhabiting the hearts and minds of vastly different characters. Lambert’s metaphors are organic to her stories and they rsonate long after the reader has closed the book. Canadian literary fiction is thriving. We have every reason to be … proud of our writers…." -- The Hamilton Spectator, Mar. 2002
"Shaena Lambert’s The Falling Woman has yielded but one criticism of her astute and assured debut -- it’s too short. The 10 stories break your heart without malice, surprise with their elegance and provide an auspicious entrée to what appears to be a significant new voice in Canadian fiction…. Lambert brushes her sentences on the page with an unwavering poise, slowly layering in depth, complexity and colour to build her stories…. Solid writing, though, remains only the foundation of excellent short fiction, for the form also demands vision, meaning and a story. Lambert's work possesses all of these." -- The Ottawa Citizen, Mar. 2002close this panel