H. Nigel Thomas’ collection of short stories, Lives Whole and Otherwise, is not a book to curl up with under the duvet. These are spiky, uncomfortable tales that will leave you with your eyes wide open to the difficulties of being a Black immigrant in Montreal.
Retired prostitute, tired teacher or experienced community organizer, the characters in Lives Whole and Otherwise are a rambunctious company, each with a story to tell of a life splintered by the loss of identity that follows from immigration, by inherited low self-esteem and by institutionalized racism. While Thomas saves his most savage satire for incidental characters representing the Canadian institutions that continue to fail the immigrant and the immigrant’s children (the high school principal, representatives of local government, employers, men of the cloth), the main characters challenge the hypocrisy perceived as innate in Canadian society, because they must. As Maude, a long-time community organizer with plenty experience of local government and the hypocrisy attendant on vote-catching, says:
“These demos, what they achieve anyway? But if you don’t make a noise in this country, they assume you’re satisfied.”
None of characters in these stories are satisfied. Most are finding ways to solve problems and change attitudes through gestures large and small. In “Memoirs,” retired prostitute Mary Fellows lies on her bed recalling the evening’s events. She has been the driving force behind a nighttime march of sex workers for Christ, and she can’t wait to see the news reports. In “My People! My People” Adolphe Francis stomps along in the spring sunshine angrily reflecting on the barriers he has encountered in his quest to find financial support for a victim of racial profiling. Other characters make their gestures on a more personal level: Margaret signs papers that will see her abusive husband deported in “Another Trip”; in “Suitcases,” Perry, who is gay, has the grace to continue to house Baldwin, his alcoholic renegade brother-in-law, because Perry has experienced what it is to be rescued after life and spirit have been shattered by prejudice and violence.
In Thomas’ hands the interior monologue becomes a powerful tool for voicing character and experience. Time and again he demonstrates his skill at reproducing the speech patterns of characters with Caribbean origins to mesmerizing effect. Sometimes the monologues are so powerful that they threaten to break the frame of the story. Or rather, the monologues are pinned into place with a third-person framing that seems artificial in comparison to the richness of the first-person voice. On occasion I wondered why Thomas did not dispense with it altogether. However, the stories contained in Lives Whole and Otherwise are all about shaking one frame or another. H. Nigel Thomas gives voice to a hard social reality that refuses the glib formulas of traditional narrative form. The result is an open-ended quality that can leave the reader simultaneously frustrated and hopeful.
Alice Petersen is a citizen of New Zealand and Canada. Her stories have been published in Takahe, Geist, Fiddlehead, Room, in The Journey Prize Stories 19 and in Coming Attractions 08. Her short story collection All the Voices Cry, shortlisted for the 2010 Metcalf Rooke Award, is forthcoming from Biblioasis Press in 2012.