The Toronto Star Review - Russian Dolls

Reviewed by: Stephen Finucan

Partway through Russian Dolls: Stories from the Breathing Castle, the late W.P. Kinsella's final work of fiction (he passed away in September), Wylie, the struggling writer who narrates this odd story-collection-cum-novel reflects that the Muses "are often unable to distinguish between truth and fantasy."

He is thinking at this moment of the enigmatic and troubled Christie, a beautiful stranger who crashes into his life — and his bed — like "an apparition from Greek mythology pulling thread hand over hand from my mouth. She seduces me into spinning the chaff of my life into bright little jewels, some small, some large, word pictures that bubble on the page like flowers boiling in a cauldron."

Before Christie, Wylie wrote stories such as "The Phantom Bowling Ball," "Bus Dancing" and "The Spaceship That Crashed on a Cattle Ranch." Crap, by his own admission, that one editor called: "Improbable . . . Like having a clown at an execution."

Things change after Christie, though. After Christie, it's the bright little jewels.

For those who hoped the Shoeless Joe author might return one last time to his whimsical field of dreams, Russian Dolls will come as a disappointment. There's not a baseball to be found — not a cornfield or corndog either. The closest Kinsella comes to whimsy here is when he lets loose a magical cat in a midget's apartment to sort out a wallpaper parrot that's been stealing Oreos in the night.

Sounds cute, but Russian Dolls is not a cute book. Stylistically, it is inventive. Chapters chronicling Wylie and Christie's relationship — they live together in an east Vancouver rooming house in the late-1970s — alternate with the stories that, at Christie's insistence, Wylie writes. But there's more at play than narrative cleverness. At its heart, Russian Dolls is something much darker.

Its concern lies with the nature of creativity itself — with probing the painful corners of personal experience, the murky hollows of the soul from which disturbing and agonizing stories such as "Risk Takers," "The Knife in the Door" and "Do Not Abandon Me" emerge.

Yet such contemplation comes at a cost, and the Muses are inconstant. A fact Wylie must learn, but one Kinsella clearly understood.


Stephen Finucan is a Toronto novelist and short story writer.


This review originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

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