Theresa Kishkan, Winter Wren

Should John Pass ever have gotten concerned at how pleased I always am to read new work from Theresa Kishkan?

Kishkan's new novella, Winter Wren, is a phenomenal read, and the latest evidence that there's no accounting for which artists are the ones who get famous. Kishkan has a wonderful touch with small moments, and indeed this novella is largely constructed of small moments surrounding some vastly larger moments, laconically told.

Winter Wren is set in 1974, and Grace Oakden has bought a tiny, isolated cabin above Sandcut Beach on southern Vancouver Island. The title is in homage to the song of the winter wrens which frequent the area, birds whom Grace recognizes to be singing what sounds very like something by Bach. Fairly early in the book, she visits the cabin's previous owner at the nursing home where he has been confined. Many years have passed now since his boyhood travels with his father who plundered (collected from) First Nations villages, and she asks him about the winter wrens:
     In reply, the old man whistled the run of notes she had heard in the salal. He covered his face with his hands and began to weep. Grace bent to the wheelchair and touched his shoulder. He kept his hands over his face and his whole body shuddered as he wept. If I can find us some tea, she asked, would you drink a cup? (p.36)
The novella has strands of narration, each within its own strand of time: the nearly 60-year-old Grace, who has lived an artist's life in Europe for decades without ever quite being The Artist; Grace in some younger days; some men at different points in her life, not all of them romantic interests. In Grace's company we visit Paris and Venice, as well as Memorial Crescent here in Victoria BC, and in Tom Winston's company we visit some of the villages and sites to which he accompanied his father. I'm still puzzling over which theme is truly at the core of the book, the meaning of artistic production (painting, pottery, photography), the artistry of meaningful cultural production (First Nations objects of ritual and ceremony, plus those other arts), the inhabitation of space and place, and so on. To be honest, however, the intersection of these themes through the poignant, wry mind of Grace Oakden means that there's no disentangling them.

And the end of the book is so very, very rewarding, though I'm giving nothing away about that!

Autobiography and fiction have a complicated relationship, and Kishkan's reflection on this particular book's genesis illuminates some of that complication. Winter Wren is the first book from Fish Gotta Swim, a new imprint led by Kishkan and the very talented Anik See (whose book Saudade is itself a treasure). With this as a starting point, we should all be excited to see where they take us.


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