Sunday, July 18, 2010

Barbara Lambert

This review first published in Quill and Quire (April 2000).

A Message for Mr. Lazarus
by Barbara Lambert
Cormorant, 1999

With the publication of A Message for Mr. Lazarus, Barbara Lambert joins the growing throng of first-rate female short story writers in Canada. In her debut collection – following a novel, The Allegra Series – she proves herself a deft practitioner of the short story form, and an eminent cartographer of the heart.

A Message for Mr. Lazarus is a stunning piece of work. The stories are told with a simple, direct style that resonates with a complicated architecture of images and themes. Many of the characters work in the visual arts, which allows Lambert to layer her stories with connections between art and life, reality and dream. Kundera’s phrase, “the unbearable lightness of being,” applies here, as Lambert’s characters seem both buoyed against the darkness that surrounds them and also tragically, inevitably fated to disappear into it.

The title (which seems oddly prosaic, given the depth of poetic suggestions the stories conjure up) is taken from the book’s longest story. A winner of the prominent Malahat Review novella contest, it features an older man from Toronto who has gone to a remote tropical resort, while his gay lover faces the final, fatal stages of AIDS back in the frozen north. The dying man is an artist, the protagonist an art dealer who grew up in Nazi Germany and has spent a lifetime escaping from one trauma after another. As the story moves delicately toward its conclusion, readers will have plenty of time to reflect on their own mortality, and on what they would be willing to risk for love.

Raucous, anti-humanist postmodernism has its own band of champions, but Barbara Lambert reminds us that the best metaphors still reside around the heart.

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