BABY KHAKI'S WINGS by Anar Ali (Viking Canada), 246 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
What do you get when you mix gorgeously wrought magic realism with stark desperation and loss? Something so imaginative it hurts.
Tanzania-born, Alberta-raised, Toronto-based Anar Al has delivered a debut short story collection, Baby Khaki's Wings, that almost takes us there.
Her tales, seven in all, unspool in varying Albertan and East African landscapes, traversing notions of home, and her characters, East African Ismailis, move through displacements, transitions, endings and new beginnings that are at once miraculous and sinister.
The title story, nominated for a 2004 Journey Prize, is the best of the bunch.
It's weighted with secrets but soars with possibilities as the downy-winged baby flaps and flies despite her nanny's attempts to protect them both from the evil that is superstition.
The Weight Of Pearls is also infused with mysticism and beautifully disturbing. Although it begins as the simple tale of two vastly different teenaged brothers, it shifts gears at the halfway point and turns inside out to draw a haunting portrait of love and the undertows that would thwart it.
With poignant clarity, Christmas Baby examines the tensions between familial happiness and financial distress, and Samuel Mathews reveals the rapidity with which lives can fall apart.
Threaded throughout most of the stories, however, is a moralism that works to oversimplify their emotions and events. That pride, greed and envy figure prominently here isn't the problem - it's the consequences Ali heaps on her characters and the subsequent lessons learned that get annoying.
That and the fact that Baby Khaki's Wings leans a little too hard on tell rather than show are snags, but this is a smooth, engaging read nonetheless.
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