John Lent, Monet's Garden

The Okanagan: I grew up (sort of, for part of it) in the Shuswap, which is just beyond the northernmost point in the North Okanagan drainage. This year I've got a student who's reading literature from/about the Okanagan, and I'm enjoying the visits to places I knew fairly well but were just outside the range of my familiarity.

John Lent's linked short story collection Monet's Garden is this week's read. Vernon figures in several of the stories, as setting for some and as subtext for others. The book reminded me strongly of John Harris' Small Rain, which came out seven years earlier and is physically similar in size. Both of them use linked stories and flirt with autobiography in their approach, and both are anchored in a particular Canadian location.

But whereas Small Rain is fifteen stories marked as fiction and yet using the names of real people Harris knows (including a first-person narrator named "John Harris"), only two of Lent's stories here are openly nonfictional, and those are "Roofs" and "Roofs in the Heart." At least, I think they're nonfictional! The first is about a writer at a Banff retreat who goes home to Vernon for the weekends to plant flowers, and who on the drive back comes up with the idea of an Edmonton family consisting of parents plus three children, and all the stories are about this family. The second, the book's final story, includes the remark that "The voices that began in the car three months ago have stopped" (p.117). There are enough overlaps between the fictional and biographical families that it's clear Lent has been mining his past for material, but what writer doesn't do that, at least a little? Harris might be writing nonfiction and calling it fiction; Lent's writing fiction, though he might be using it to reflect on his own life.

It's a typically dysfunctional family, the one whose life Lent chronicles here via fragment, and it has the standard appeal and lack thereof common to all such approaches. Every family is dysfunctional in its own way, of course, and every story needs some conflict, but I didn't find much unexpected here. It's a small-press book (from Thistledown in 1996, which continues to publish excellent work today), and it felt like some other small-press books I've read. More people need to read them, but I'm not sure how to get there!

And I'm not sure whether to recommend this book, either. It sounds like Lent's 2005 follow-up So It Won't Go Away continues the same exploration of the terrain between fiction and non-, so I might need to read that one before I can make a real judgement about this book. It's certainly neither forgettable nor a throw-away; Monet's Garden has some fine writing, and some of the character studies are especially good. Settings felt too often like catalogues of details to me, especially of commercial enterprises, though presumably that's part of the point. It belongs on my "good BC literature" shelves, definitely, but there's no ranking system within the domain of the shelves....


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