Chez l’arabe by Mireille Silcoff
House of Anansi
Reviewed by Ayelet Tsabari
Imagine discovering one day—after suffering from inexplicable dizzy spells, headaches, vertigo, and a strange tingling in your body no doctor seems able to diagnose—that your spinal fluid is leaking, literally draining out through a tear in your spinal cord’s sheath, causing your brain to sink into your occipital bone. Imagine you are unable to move or speak for months at a time, let alone work in the career you spent years building. What would you do?
Trapped in her Montreal home and in a body that had turned on her, Mireille Silcoff wrote stories in 10–15 minute bursts. Stories about people whose lives have taken disappointing and unexpected turns, and who struggle to make connections with the world around them. “He doesn’t understand why his life became the way it is,” the narrator’s mother—a former “Tel Aviv beach babe”—says in “Shalom Israel!” She is referring to an Israeli author they’re listening to on the radio, but really, she is speaking about herself, and about many of the characters that inhabit Silcoff’s debut fiction collection, Chez L’arabe.
It makes sense that Silcoff, a National Post columnist and New York Times contributor, made her first foray into fiction in the short form, which is in itself a constraint. Chez L’arabe is a book about confinement, isolation, loss and loneliness. Silcoff writes a Montreal that is almost exotic: European, sophisticated, cold and strikingly beautiful, often seen from the windows of handsome, stylish houses. Her characters, mostly women, live alone or with absent partners, rarely leave their homes, confined by physical or mental disabilities. They are mostly wealthy, often employ maids, own nice silver and beautiful coats, and throw dazzling dinner parties. In one extreme case, a narrator’s wife throws away a $3000 windbreaker, tag still on, “like a piece of garbage.”
In many of the stories the link to the outside world is provided by a visitor. In the powerful, first-person title story, that link is Mohammed, a taxi driver who takes the narrator (suffering from the same affliction as Silcoff) to her bi-weekly acupuncture appointments, and then it is Samira, an Iranian woman whose restaurant the narrator nicknames Chez L’arabe, who brings her warm lunch every day. The first time Samira appears at the narrator’s door, the narrator opens it wearing an Israel, Just Do It! T-shirt, purchased in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market in the 90s.
“You know they have some Israeli food,” the narrator’s mother (the same Israeli beach babe from “Shalom Israel!”) tells her later. “Labneh and zatar.”
“No, it’s Middle Eastern food,” the narrator says, and, “if the Jewish state had set up shop in Sweden, you’d have grown up eating lingonberries.”
As the daughter of a similarly entertaining Israeli mother who frequently features in my work I may be biased, but the narrator’s mother (inspired by Silcoff’s own mother), is by far my favourite character in the collection. She is also the book’s chief comic relief with her Hebrew influenced syntax (“I know Place des Arts. Very good I know it”) and her way of making everything about her (“and now she had such a migraine because I just didn’t understand what it was like to have a daughter so sick”).
Silcoff’s use of humour extends past the mother’s character. In “Appalachian Spring,” the recovering narrator escapes to California, where she ends up spending most of her time inside the bungalow she sublets. In one scene she dares to venture to the field at the end of the property, then panics and flees, buck naked, when she discovers it infested with rabbits and rabbit feces.
Those three linked and autobiographical stories are the strongest of the bunch. In these self-portraits created from her sickbed, Silcoff gives us a glimpse into her illness and the challenges she faced, and does it with grace and humour, even when describing the narrator’s fear of death, deep isolation, and excruciating pain.
In an interview with the Montreal Gazette Silcoff said about being bedridden, “Staring out my window at a tree fluttering in the breeze became an actual activity. It was a very good state for writing fiction.” That keen attention to detail is evident in Silcoff’s prose. Despite the limitations faced by Silcoff and her characters, the world she creates is expansive and rich, her prose is precise and effortless (the kind of effortless that fools you into believing writing is easy), and her imagery is vivid and evocative. In one story, the Montreal winter sky is “the colour of overcooked veal,” in another, a red light is, “the merest blush through layers of window steam and frost and white shards blowing from a low, gurning sky.”
In “Chez L’arabe”, the narrator reminisces of the cab rides she used to take back when she was healthy, a busy journalist who dashed out of the house with heels and scarves and headphones already on, heading to dinner or an opening downtown. “The cab swinging east over Mount Royal, the chandelier sky above and the velvet city appliqued with the skyscrapers below. Sometimes the city and the music and the silver disco moon would collide in a crescendo so exhilarating it felt like I was living in one of Antoine’s classier commercials.” Silcoff was a nightclub reporter in the beginning of her career, wrote a clubbing column for the late Montreal Mirror, and her first books covered club and youth culture; this snippet feels like a glimpse into her past life, into the shimmering brilliance and glamour of youth. Now, the narrator says, “Every car ride felt like a prelude to an aneurism.” One would expect that facing the fragility and fleetingness of mortality would result in messier, rawer stories – and at times, I longed for just that, a little more urgency and wildness, a little less neatness, but Silcoff’s stories remain unruffled, polished and mature, as smart and elegant as the characters they depict.