How children spill into our lives.
What is the meaning of children? Besides being key to assuring the continuation of the human species, or bringing immense joy – or worries – to their parents? What about their innocence? Rites of passage? In all that they can signify, can we separate them from our lives? With these questions in mind, I ventured into Beverly Akerman’s first collection of short stories. Short stories that for the most part have already been well published and have won the author many contests and prizes, such as the Pushcart Prize.
In The Meaning of Children, the collection is organized into three sections: first, on being a child, followed by the realities of parenting and lastly, those of older parents. The result is a profusion of modern preoccupations: paternity testing, divorce, abortion, therapy, suicide, paedophilic cybersex and the loss of an adult child to war. This diversity is well represented on the multi-coloured title and the portrait collage on the cover.
There are fourteen stories in all. Many of them exercise difficult writing tools such as the second person point of view in Like Jeremy Irons, which deals with abortion. Surprisingly, the use of “you” blankets the stories with anonymity. The first three, narrated through the eyes of a child in the first person, are candid, disarmingly frank and lucid. So delightful they are, that I regret is that the entire collection isn’t written from the children’s perspective. Nevertheless, with the adult’s stories alternating being the first and the third person, Beverly shows that she has mastered point of view.
The story lines are clean, with simple structures and plots. The richness of the pieces comes from Beverley’s style and her fertile imagination, which creates vivid descriptions — “Together they made a shape like a deformed heart, broken at the bottom and lopsided…” — to describe fighting parents. Elsewhere, expansive imagery pulls the reader in: “Orthodox Jews, they always travelled in packs. In fact, if you stood before their dwelling places and narrowed your eyes just the right way, you could almost make out the flapping tents and, nearby, the camels, squinting into the sun, waiting patiently to be formed once again into caravans and make their rock ‘n’ roll way across the ancient, almost-unremembered world.” Notice the impeccable use of the second person. I caught myself squinting.
Beverly’s background as a scientist, MSc and twenty years as a molecular researcher, inevitably spills into the stories, in the characters, the settings and her style. Intelligent, objective, open-minded but not clinical, her prose is refreshing and unprejudiced. Her characters are frank and genuine.
Because children do not exist in a bubble from the rest of our world, Beverly paints a canvas full of life, and its close associate, death, and all contemporary trappings in between. As a matter of fact, the last piece, “What I’ve Prayed For,” is a personal wish list from childhood to death. With The Meaning of Children, we get a beautifully written exposé on the meaning of life.