Theresa Kishkan, Patrin

Melancholy, plangent, luminous: in case of fire, break glass and release the adjectives, people!

Theresa Kishkan's new novella from Mother Tongue Publishing, Patrin, is every bit as remarkable as one might hope. Set in the 1970s and starring a bookish, brownish young woman with an immigrant's name, Patrin alternates between Victoria, BC; a backpacking tour of sunny Europe (plus England); and a quest through what was then Czechoslovakia. Kishkan renders all these locales with great intimacy, including what I think must be a roman a clef for Victoria's writing community at the time, centred around a nameless but unmistakable version of the inimitable Robin Skelton.

In brief, young Patrin Szkandery is finding her way as a writer but non-student in a university town, wishing she could learn about the Romani heritage that her father and grandfather never shared with her before their deaths, when she gets an unexpected opportunity to pursue this heritage on the ground in Czechoslovakia.
I'd never known poets before--how could I, in my household, my father a radar technician and my mother someone who believed in the sanctity of cleanliness? (p.47)
It's a novella about a young woman's first loves, about the evolution of family in the echoing shadow of immigration's discontents, and about the long reach of History. We fish for trout in BC streams, beside which we sleep in a tent trailer; we learn traditional ecological knowledge from First Nations women in the Fraser Canyon, and from Romani women in Czechoslovakia; we sleep with musicians in Greece, as one does; we navigate the treacheries of post-Stalinist Communism.
I'd had a love affair, which made me feel sophisticated, if still a little heart-sore. And I knew Wimbledon Common the way my former classmates knew the trails of Beaver Lake. I knew the protocols of shopping at a greengrocer's.... (p.84)
Reviews of Patrin are still thin on the ground, since Kishkan is still on what amounts to a launch tour (that lands here in Victoria on Thursday, November 5th), but I expect that it'll draw a lot of positive attention. I'll have more to say about this book, I suspect, once I've had time to reread it and to think about it in relation to Kishkan's own 1970s poetry (Ikons of the Hunt, for example, on my shelf at the office), but I'm confident in saying that this is a seriously accomplished little volume.

Previous visitors here may recall that Kishkan is a house favourite at Book Addiction HQ, with links to my several other commentaries through the years included in my review of her most recent book Mnemonic, but I'm not favouring Patrin out of nostalgia or any similar emotion.

Plainly put, Patrin is a thorough, spare novella that exploits the genre's allusive strengths in pursuit of an intimate grasp of multiple, interlocking histories. And it's a delight.

Disclosure: Kishkan is virtually a friend, even if we've met in person only once, and Patrin was partly inspired by our mutual Czech friend Katka Prajznerova. But I stand by the views expressed here, and I've bought copies for Christmas gifts already.


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