Key in Lock ~ Reviewed by Annie VignaBook Reviews Sunday, July 31st, 2011
Calgary, Recliner Books, 2010
239pp. CAD $18.95
Reviewed by Annie Vigna
The cover of Rona Altrows’ Key in Lock, a collection of 27 short stories, is adorned with Woman in Contemplation, a drawing created by Gabriel von Max. “Woman in Contemplation” might have been a suitable title for this collection, as Altrows contemplates sex, betrayal, incontinence, and plastic surgery, issues of interest to an aging woman. Unlike the figure on the cover, however, Altrows gives these considerations a voice, sometimes tentative, often loud, always wise, always honest, always memorable.
The characters in Key in Lock are real, familiar; they speak in a language easily understood, flavoured with sprinkles of Yiddish idiom. In Dartboard the author has the reader wondering why teenager Sarah has left school. Well, everyone used to know that when a young girl leaves school and/or town to visit relatives, it is because she is in “the family way,” and that she will return when the baby is born and put up for adoption. This is the scenario of Dartboard (pg. 57). When questioned about Sarah, best friend Clair says,
“She’s down in Florida, and not for a holiday. She never wanted to go there in the first place and she writes me once a week and every letter says the same thing. She’s miserable. She wants to come home. But it’s not time and she can’t. Not yet.”
“So when will they let her come back?”
“I think she’ll have to wait until the bubbie croaks.”
“Eh? The baby’s gonna croak?”
All I’m saying is that the reader had better know what a Jewish “bubbie” is. But, no worries . . .
Altrows has impeccable timing and comedic spin, and the dialogue in Key in Lock is brilliant. In the same story, “I’m sick of doing my mother’s dirty work, “ she said. / “Like what?” I asked. / “Harold is a putz, and she won’t punish him, and I’m supposed to be the guard dog, keeping away all the people he’s injured.” / “What’s a putz?” I asked. / “Eh? Do you live in Outremont or don’t you?”/ “Yeah. So?” / “So you’re surrounded by thousands of Jewish people. I practically just got here and I already know the most important Yiddish words.” / “So what’s a putz?” / “A miserable little brat bastard of a prick,” she says. / “Wow. That’s good.” / “Why do you think I’m picking up the lingo? They’ve got a ton of good ones to help you save your breath. Schmuck. Schlemiel. Schnorer.” / “Putz?” / “Attagirl” (pg.61).
Those of you who have read Altrows’ previous collection, A Run on Hose, will welcome back the circumspective, wise Irene, the exemplary manager of Marjorie’s Lingerie. Her position at Marjorie’s Lingerie gives her a view of her world, often through the confidences of her customers. Discretion is her middle name. Listening is the gift she gives to her customers, whether they are purchasing or just hoping for a bit of comfort and help through a bad time. Corn which begins on page 137, demonstrates this wisdom and kindness, told so gently and honestly that I cried.
Estelle in Matinee tries Irene’s patience and loyalty. “Do I listen because I care about her? How can I, when she insists on making herself dumb? What’s worse, she’s often mean. A couple of years ago, I had it out with her when she ran around town maligning my friend Reuben. I told her to cut out the badmouthing pronto, and I didn’t make any effort to soften my message. I thought Estelle and I were done for good, …” (pg. 238). This time the inimitable Irene deals with Estelle, quite smartly and effectively, ethereally, in her dream.
Silent Partner has Irene reminiscing about Henry, her late partner, projecting in a touching and cathartic way, a future they did not have. And Modern Fit shows her struggling with the owner Frank’s decision to introduce men’s products at Marjorie’s Lingerie.
Some stories are short. Borscht is only one page, Cast Clinic, and Joseph only two and three pages, but every story is beautifully crafted and memorable. It’s no wonder Key in Lock made the Top 10 week after week!
Annie Vigna is a former bookstore owner. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.
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