Discerner Of Hearts by Olive Senior (McClelland & Stewart), $22.99 paper. Rating: NNNN
With her latest collection of wild and unforgiving and still somehow kind short stories, Olive Senior triumphs again. The Toronto resident and winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize has produced nine flawless, beautifully crafted tales that explore the clash between traditional and present-day Jamaica.While at times Senior's writing slips into fable-like simplicity, she does not romanticize or attempt to portray daily life as perfect, but instead doggedly explores its personal complexities. Her Jamaica is populated with women and girls who struggle to make sense of their fractious communities and provide the glue that binds them.
The all-too-fallible but always engaging characters find themselves in situations that are beyond their control and yet shape their understanding of the world. They range in temperament from queenly to prissy to tomboy, in social class from servant to landowner, and in occupation from maid to student to drug dealer's daughter.
Senior switches in and out of patois much the way her characters change when faced with adversity. A tough woman named Cissy crumbles when she finds out she's been cursed by her lover's wife, and only the obeahman, the Discerner of Hearts and Restorer of Confidence can bring her peace. Little Shelly-Ann refuses to call her parents Mom and Dad and instead refers to them as strangers -- the Lizardy-Man and his Lady -- right before tragedy strikes.
Senior's female characters are both resilient and fragile, conventional and rebellious. They can conform to or openly defy social mores and class lines in order to ensure their own happiness and that of the people they love.
Hot summer reading at its best.