Issue # 188 - Ian Colford

Ian Colford


I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are by Carole Glasser Langille (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2015, 176 pp., $24.95).



Carole Glasser Langille’s second collection of short fiction, I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are, probes the inner lives of characters of both genders and at all stages of life with calm assurance and succinct but graceful lyricism. These are mainly stories about mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, friends and acquaintances. The title hints at what’s going on here. The people Langille writes about often linger in each other’s thoughts. As in real life, choices that one person makes will matter greatly to another. Langille is writing about intricately intertwined lives that touch and overlap and influence one another in overt or subtle, but always meaningful, ways. In these stories no one acts or speaks in isolation.

     “Class” tells the story of unassertive Nick Rayne, a teacher riddled with self-doubt who cannot abide the disrespectful and critical manner in which Mrs. Vortman, the principal of the school, treats some of the children, Jamal in particular, a bright boy who sometimes acts out in disruptive ways. Nick is also caught in a subtly antagonistic relationship with his younger siblings: brother Cal, a successful actor, and sister Penny, an addict. In addition, Nick is perplexed by his affectionate but emotionally detached relationship with Emma, the daughter of one of his teaching colleagues, and for reasons unknown even to himself, he’s made plans for a trip to Greece over the Easter break without inviting Emma to join him. Consumed by his inadequacies, regretting lost opportunities, it seems Nick is always apologizing, either out loud or in his head to people he feels he’s let down. When, as the school year approaches its close, his doubts about his effectiveness as a teacher nearly overwhelm him, he finds the sadness that grips him assuaged by the boy Jamal, who clearly regards him with reverence.

     In “Navigating” Honey’s life is depicted in all its dizzying complexity. In the midst of divorcing her husband Quinn, her beloved uncle Gil receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Honey, a health-care professional, spends much of her free time with her dying uncle trying to keep him comfortable and listening to his sage advice. In addition to her uncle, she’s also concerned about how the divorce will affect her daughter Maddie. At work, often distracted by worries that keep creeping up on her, she is unprepared and vulnerable when Jarrett, a doctor who sometimes stares at her in an off-putting and unsettling manner, asks her out. Despite serious doubts, she settles into a relationship with Jarrett that soon becomes physical, this even though she often finds herself thinking back to a time in her life before her marriage to Quinn, when she had acted on her attraction to women. When Jarrett becomes possessive, asking her to account for her time away from him and inserting himself into her visits with her uncle, and then subsequently revealing a dark secret to her, it’s too late to retreat easily or gracefully from the relationship. To save herself she’s forced to take drastic action.

     The drama in these stories is quiet. Often the turning point occurs when someone realizes something or reaches a decision. Langille’s characters do not lead privileged lives. Their worries are our worries. They live in a world where effort is not always rewarded with success, and selfishness is more prevalent than kindness. They appreciate small comforts, revel in the modest successes of those they care about. The prose is simple but at the same time starkly lyrical, brimming with elegantly phrased observations about what it means to be human in a hectic, indifferent world. In this passage from “Who Are You?” Mr. Mercier’s daughter Liz has been injured in an accident and is unable to care for herself:


Mr. Mercier, alone in the bed he is used to sharing with his wife, does not sleep either. These days he leaves the blinds open in the bedroom and when the moon is bright, looks out at the copse of trees at the back of the yard. They have such a fragile beauty, he thinks. He can’t bear to think of his daughter who isn’t able to keep her head from falling over when she sits on the couch, saliva dripping from her mouth. What will become of her? When he asks himself this question he feels quivering anxiety in his stomach, a knot of grief. He never knew sadness could be so physical, that one could feel it move into the chest and lungs. Some days he can’t help but cry. But he never lets Betty see. Often he’s awake and gazing out the window when the sun comes up. He can see lights flick on in his neighbour’s house. It’s comforting to think that other people have slept and are beginning their day.


     The stories are arranged in a loose chronological sequence and are loosely linked as well. The lead character from one story will turn up in another in a supporting role. The effect of this is to create a comfortable familiarity, in the manner of a novel, but without the novel’s framing story arc. The book holds our attention by generating a sort of understated suspense that gently nudges the reader from one story to the next.

     Carole Langille’s accomplishment in I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are is significant. This is richly nuanced work, emotionally resonant and suggestive of depths beyond what is stated. An accomplished and prize-winning poet, Carole Langille knows how to deploy language to touch both the mind and the heart.