How does one cope with a neurological condition that causes the body’s spinal fluid to leak uncontrollably, thereby keeping the patient immobile for most of their day? Mireille Silcoff understands, and in Chez l’arabe she depicts nine stories that immerse the reader into a world centred around real-life medical struggles.
The stories are linked…somewhat. Yet, the focus isn’t necessarily all about the doom and gloom of medical diagnoses. Aspects of the patients’ conditions may seem depressing, but Mireille Silcoff has a way of spinning a beautiful tale, that permeates throughout their daily existence, whether it’s taking a ride in a taxi cab around Montreal’s potholed nightmare thoroughfares, or shopping for a wall covering resembling a collage of tabloid headlines from 1960s British sex scandals.
“The room had two stash windows, and from where Anne now sat, they were completely filled with flame-red maple leaves. Heartbreaker leaves, thought Anne, most beautiful when about to detach and fall… At night, the red of the leaves would look a blackish burgundy, nearly matching the colour of her walls.”
The writing is indeed poetic. Chez l’arabe tugs at your heartstrings and is realism at its finest. Even “sugar” becomes art.
“Davinia, what’s that?” This was Anne, eight, on her tiptoes, pointing across a set dining room table to a silver tray on the sideboard.
“That’s a sugar sifter.”
“Because it’s nicer to sprinkle sugar on your berries than to spoon the sugar on.”
Sparkling crystals fell out of the turret’s slit top and bounced onto the white centre of the gold-rimmed plate.
Each of the stories in Chez l’arabe feature a woman as the protagonist; one who’s battling her own medical challenges primarily from the comfort of her home. Each story, explores various relationships – between spouses, between mothers and daughters, between a grandmother and her granddaughter, and even between strangers.
“Betrayal has a point of conversation, a crux where the victim careens to clarity.”
Appalachian Spring highlights a cantankerous grandmother who normally veers from one surgery to another, spending twenty-three out of twenty-four hours of the day alone on a bed clustered with television remote controls and transistor radios and copies of TV Guide. When asked by her granddaughter why bother with her trip to Palm Springs every year if she barely left her condo when she got there, her reply was that she “felt different in California, and that was interesting to her”. For this grandmother there was a “there there” in her California.
The stories highlight rare signs of introspection that illuminate the condition of human beings.
“Sometimes you have to do things a certain way for reasons that don’t withstand explanation.”
Perhaps the most autobiographical account of the New York Times journalist’s life is in the story Chez l’arabe. It was interesting to learn that she wrote part of the stories while confined to her bed, able to work for only fifteen minutes a day.
This story centres around a lonely woman in her mid-thirties, suffering from a painful medical condition. Surrounded by an overbearing mother and a seemingly apathetic husband, she tries to balance life finding the beauty in the existential.
“I loved my window map. I made friends with its antique lines the same way a kid blinking under cartoon sheets adopts the baby stalactites in a stucco ceiling or the knotted faces in wood panelling.”
Chez l’arabe is a series of stories that deserves to be read over and over again, because every re-read provides novel introspection into the human condition and our ability to see the beauty of life. Mireille Silcoff’s writing is unrushed, and with each story she imparts brief glimpses into the character’s daily struggles, leaving the reader with a genuine and fulfilling satisfaction.
“The person who conquers illness asks: Am I now saved or do I still need saving?”