Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Already the author of two novels and two collections of poetry, Montreal writer Cora Siré has now turned her talents toward short stories. Her debut collection, Fear the Mirror, is hardly typical of the genre, however. Many of the stories are autobiographical. How much is fact and how much is fiction is impossible to know, but Siré’s intent is clear; she is mining the incidents and the people in her life for insight into wider issues. The stories are connected, and she herself is the subject of several.
Her family is complex in many ways. Her parents were immigrants, having fled Estonia during World War II, spending time in Western Europe and parts of South America before finding their way to Canada. They each speak several languages, some of which they casually slip into from time to time. Others, like German, they try to avoid.
A consistent theme throughout the stories is identity. Who are we and where do we belong? In the first story, “Fear the Mirror,” Cora writes about growing up hearing about a grandmother she never knew, whose name she bears as her middle one. The family doesn’t talk about her much, except to say that she was considered virtuous. But what does that mean for Cora?
The title of both the story and the collection is perhaps a warning to the reader not to do as she, the author, has done. A warning not to think too deeply about one’s own family, its past, its handling of memories.
Subsequent stories tell of an aunt who chose the American Dream of California over the staidness of Canada, another details a trip to Estonia with her mother, and yet another recounts meeting her in-laws in northern Argentina. There’s a portrait of a writer she interviews, and a fascinating discussion of a female Argentinian filmmaker, Lucrecia Martel, and the famous book, Zama, that Martel is bringing to film. But there are several stories that seem to be completely fictional: gravediggers in Buenos Aires during the time when so many opponents of the military government “disappeared,” a romantic tryst in the same city involving tango lessons, a university student in Ottawa who earns money playing backgammon at a small bistro, and an abstract artist in Montreal whose specialty is collages.
Siré has a number of strengths as a writer. The first is language. Being a poet, her use of language is very adept, using short phrases that are often deeply evocative. Another is her ability to insert pertinent historical background without it seeming stiff or academic. If anything, it is usually done with emotion. In several of the stories, she shows the way World War II and the violent years of the Argentine military rule continued to affect survivors long after it ended, rippling through their lives, and even those of their children. It is often believed, and just as often hoped for, by such survivors themselves, that a new life in a new place will enable them to leave the past behind. Siré convinces us that this simply doesn’t happen.
Fear the Mirror is published by Véhicule Press.