The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

I don’t often feel sympathy for those individuals who write cover blurbs for fiction books, but the person who was assigned the task for The Juliet Stories has my full attention. The title seems to promise a short story collection — and that’s where the volume got filed on my shelf for the first few months after arrival. When I took it down one day as a possibility in my continuing short story reading program, the promo text caught my eye: “a stunning new novel-in-stories”. I’m never quite certain how blurb writers (or their marketing comrades) decide between “linked short stories” or “novel-in-stories” but I tend to be a fan, whichever description is chosen — and this book is definitely more novel than story collection.

The Juliet Stories carries this challenge further, however: not only is it a novel-in-stories, it is a two-for-one. Part One, Amulets, consists of nine chapters chronicling the Friesen family experience in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s. Part two, Disruption, features a further nine stories involving the same family, extended for some decades following their return to Canada from Nicaragua.

And, just to keep the structural intrigue going, if I was author Carrie Snyder’s editor, I would have said “we have a more than good novel in Amulets, so let’s publish it now — and that will give you more time to see if Disruption can be brought up to scratch.”

Juliet Friesen has the lead role in almost all the stories — she is a 10-year-old, the eldest of three Friesen children when the family arrives in Managua in the opening story; eighteen stories later, she is a middle-aged mother of two.

One of the reasons that Part One works is that it is much more than Juliet’s story and also benefits from a much more contained time frame (just over a year as opposed to a number of decades). Snyder introduces the family as they arrive on a flight from Texas; their luggage has gone missing, a significant loss given that they plan to stay for some months. Bram Friesen is a staff member for Roots of Justice, a protest group that coordinates the activities of youthful North American volunteers who confront the American-supported Contras who are trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime.

For this reader, Snyder established her independent political credentials (and healthy skepticism) early in the first story as the baggageless Friesens head off to begin this new adventure:

It is dusk when they arrive at Simon and Renate’s house. The gate swings shut and Renate shows them to the room in which the Friesen family will temporarily camp: Renate’s office.

Renate is a missionary from Canada, and so is her husband.

Juliet knows all about missionaries; that is what Grandma Grace and Grandpa Harold used to be. Two days ago they kissed goodbye outside Washington’s National Airport; the wind blew jagged sparks of snow into hair and eyelashes. Grandma Grace said to Gloria, her daughter, keep your purse strap wrapped around your wrist; there are bound to be pickpockets. To Juliet she said, don’t forget to say your prayers. Jesus Christ, I don’t even have a purse, Gloria said to Bram, laughing, as they waved through the closing glass doors and Grandpa Harold helped Grandma Grace into the front seat of his Cadillac: American built with American pride. Nobody cried, not then. The crying part was over, and the questioning, and the lectures.

Missionaries tell other people what to do.

Anti-imperialist peace protest may have replaced religious conversion as the name of the game, but it still means extending North American values into Latin American society. And, like their missionary parents before them, Bram and Gloria Friesen are long on idealism, but still rather short on life experience. It is a shortcoming that will be shared by the arriving volunteers who are the reason-to-be for the Roots of Justice. And, given the era and the age and politics of the characters, it gives nothing away to say that a central element of the “short on life experience” part of the story is figuring out just who can sleep with whom.

Throughout the first half of the novel, Snyder balances those tensions very well. The global politics are always present, but never treated sentimentally. Bram and Gloria have their own idealism-based tension (he’s political, she’s musical) to go with the continuing life-learning one. And Juliet and her siblings, Keith and Baby Emmanuel, are useful lenses to explore what it is like to move into a society where your share neither the language nor culture — not to mention, that young Juliet provides a convenient viewpoint from which to examine “adult” conflicts through the eyes and thoughts of maturing childhood innocence.

Snyder’s primary interest is her notion of family, so the predictable drama of Nicaraguan politics never is allowed to dominate the story. Bram, Gloria and Juliet all become well-drawn characters — it is inevitable that the Nicaraguan part of their lives must come to an end, but by the time it does the reader is engaged in the family portrait.

Unfortunately, that portrait loses focus in Part Two of The Juliet Stories. Juliet’s brother Keith has cancer, which is the reason for their departure. The illness and his death, coupled with the Friesen’s return home, further exposes the contradictions between Bram and Gloria — there is little surprise when they split. By that point, the author has become principally concerned with Juliet’s story but there is simply not enough there to maintain the balance of tension as was done effectively in the opening half of the book. Indeed, Juliet becomes progressively less interesting as the book moves on; rather than being a novel-in-stories, Part Two is more nine stories in development.

In her acknowledgements, author Snyder says “it took a village to raise this book” and, for this reader at least, that offers a powerful hint to the root of the problem. In the home-cooked buffet parties that feature in the gatherings of Roots of Justice members in the first part of the book, young Juliet finds that there are simply too many dishes on offer for her to discover what really is good. Alas, I can’t help but think that too many of Snyder’s pre-publication readers offered “add more to this dish” advice rather than the maxim that is perhaps more important to all young writers: “Less often means much, much more.”

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4 Responses to “The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    From the sounds of it, this probably should have been divided and the latter part turned into a sequel.

    It’s funny that you mention the novel-in-stories idea as I am finishing up a book that seems to fall in that category–although exactly what are the boundaries of this type of book is beyond me, but the thought hit me more than once as I read this book with various views of a highly successful film director/actor told through by several people in his life

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It is only speculation of my part, but I think the author started out to write one story and then found that the family she was portraying led her to another one. For me, she realized the first part but the second story needed more discipline to be a success.

      I can think of a number of volumes that use the “novel-in-stories” format to success. Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge is one good example — Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a classic in the same form. As I said in the review, I rather like the technique — as a reader, I look forward to the process of “filling in the gaps” that is required when the device is used to frame a book.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The novel-in-stories technique is one I’m fond of myself. Like you, I enjoy the element of filling in the gaps, assembling the jigsaw.

    A nice review Kevin. Interesting that a (in one sense) narrower focus on a single character rather than several leads to a loss of narrative focus.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      In the first nine stories, Snyder used Juliet as a kind of literary touchstone to locate the reader in observing what was happening around the child in each story. I can understand why as an author she developed an interest in developing the character further as an adult — for me, as a reader, she probably needed to do some more thinking about that before putting pen to paper.

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