“We live as we dream – alone. While the dream disappears, the life continues painfully.” — Joseph Conrad
I like to quote Conrad when I can; I find his prose very insightful into the human condition. This singular quote came to me after finishing Kaie Kellough’s Dominoes at the Crossroads just before turning off the light at bedtime. I assumed there must be a neuronal link in there somewhere. True, there is a certain dreamlike quality to Dominoes; characters came and went. I wasn’t always sure who was narrating at first. The author himself appears in the book, Hitchcock-like, and Conrad-like too, for many of that author’s stories were semi-autobiographical. Then there is the ‘painful’ aspect contained within Dominoes: people torn from their African homeland, shipped to different parts of the Caribbean and North America to be mistreated as slaves and even butchered. The pain of life. The pain of this inherited ancestry spins down through the years to a young man born of Haitian parents in Calgary. He has never been to Haiti or Guyana where many of his relatives still live. This is the author’s life.
I was also introduced to a term I was not familiar with: amanuensis. I looked it up: “An amanuensis is a person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another, and also refers to a person who signs a document on behalf of another under the latter’s authority.” Again, the author fills (or fulfills) this role. Dominoes is a document of lives lived and not lived. Lives unfulfilled due to colonization or greedy dictators like Baby Doc Duvalier.
So then, one might ask, is Dominoes at the Crossroads a collection of short stories or a fractured full-length novel? I prefer to consider it the latter, although it’s categorized as short fiction. As previously mentioned, there are reoccurring characters and settings which serve to tie the stories together in a surprisingly engaging way: the reader never knows when Kaie or the itinerant sax-playing young woman will show up. Or perhaps it is Tamika, Kaie’s girlfriend. Or Hamidou Diop, participant/observer to the race-related Computer Riot of 1969 in Montreal.Throughout Dominoes, we are treated to evocative word-pictures such as:
- In Montreal: “A combination of things attracted me to the underground, its natural heat and insulation against the winter, of course, and the feeling of being cocooned and protected, whereas outside among the buildings and automobiles a person is exposed. Standing on the street corner waiting for the light to change, a person feels the sharp edge of the wind, and a car slows as it rounds the corner and someone sticks their face out the rear window and spits, Négre.”
- In Georgetown, Guyana: “The humidity softened my cigarette, and the smoke thickened in my throat.”
- Outside Kingston, Jamaica: “The green lolled in the heat, exceeded itself, tumbled down toward the ocean as if it wanted to dive into the water and escape the island.”
- In Kingston, Ontario: “The entire hotel, even the city, floated atop Lake Ontario, and I liked that sense of being adrift in the night with the stars in the distance.”
As you can see, Mr. Kellough takes us places, geographically and transcendentally, without and within. That’s what dreams and good books do, right?
Dominoes at the Crossroads is a significant book. Mr. Kellough examines race, but as he says in Petit Marronage (my favourite section/story in the book): “Race is not something I’ve superimposed on the story. It is embedded in the experience, and I want a reader to understand that, but most readers will fixate on it. They will read it as though it rested on the surface of the narrative even though it might reside deeper in the mix.” Race is deep in Dominoes, and while it engendered anger and lashing out in the young Calgarian, it becomes something deeper and more meaningful in the mature narrator, after they, through travel, music, and literature, have broadened their horizons. Thank you, Mr. Kellough, for taking us along on a life’s journey.
“Be ready to pay attention and to be challenged. It will be worth it.”
Dominoes at the Crossroads is a five-star read, and I am putting it on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards in the Best Short Fiction category.
Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough
Esplanade Books (an imprint of Véhicule Press)
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