All The Shining People by Kathy Friedman

Each of the dozen short stories in Kathy Friedman’s debut collection, All the Shining People, stands alone, but the interconnected characters that recur in many of the stories lend additional structural complexity so that the whole volume is weightier than the sum of its parts. Within each story family members connect and clash from origins in South Africa to migration across Canada; across the spectrum of the volume these clashes form a cubist collage in transition which captures the dynamics of contemporary Jewish Diaspora. Horizontal and vertical directions frame individual stories in a flux that is illustrated in the book’s cover: the figures in Anne Leone’s painting, Cenote Azul #2, swirl underwater in a vortex of shining patterns.

“The whole volume is weightier than the sum of its parts.”

            The first story, “The Bottom of the Garden,” begins in Durban, South Africa, when the narrator Ken Kaplan is six and a half years old, before his family departs for England en route to Canada. The opening description is both domestic and exotic, the cumulative details forming patterns that radiate outward through the rest of the story and the other stories in the collection: “At night, small lizards encircled the house and pressed their white bellies against the windows, enchanted by the light. Longing to be inside with us, cockroaches spread their stiff wings and threw themselves at the glass veranda door. Once we found a shed snakeskin on the back step. The snake was thicker than our father’s wrist.”

            Windows and doors form the protective barriers between the animal world outside and the human inhabitants on the interior side of these frames, yet their interaction can be threatening, as one encroaches on the other’s territory. Shining lizard and Kafkaesque cockroaches encircle and spread across the house and countries. The snakeskin is a reminder of an original Garden of Eden where the first expulsion becomes the forerunner of contemporary migrations from gardens to other urban spaces. The final father’s wrist is an emblem of paternal punishment: in London Mr. Kaplan, a judge, applies his wrist and snakeskin, “and laid on three surprising strikes with his leather belt.” His actions surprise his son who had been accustomed to gentler treatment back home in Durban when he would watch his father shave in the bathroom. Part of the ritual involved Ken applying toilet paper to his father’s cuts, “the spots of blood left behind.” Eden’s innocence is shed in snakeskin, belt, and blood – the residues of memory, migration, and identity.

            But the garden has a more immediate significance, for the servant’s hut at the bottom of the garden is where Lindy, their nanny, lives. Every week Lindy takes Ken and his sister Leora to the zoo, but on one occasion “a huge grey bird” swoops down and claws Ken’s scalp, which requires six stitches. Lindy is dismissed, but after two months rehired. The story’s final sentence weaves together these earlier images of guilt and punishment: “In my ear, a high, clear voice, trilling like a bird at the bottom of the garden, told me it was I who was guilty, guilty forever, and that the love I had confessed was not enough to save me.” Apartheid is part of the fabric of Friedman’s fiction.

            If Kafka’s judgment oversees much of the story, there is also an element of Alice in Wonderland, as Ken and his mother go through the looking-glass of London’s biggest toy shop after his punishment. As mother and son make their way up the seven storeys of Hamleys, a labyrinthine dreamworld overtakes the narrator whose mother is displaced by Lindy. Lewis Carroll’s world merges with Kafka’s when a doorkeeper to the hall of justice appears in the form of Judge Kaplan. As if these dual perspectives were not sufficient, Friedman’s maze branches out in her final story, “Hineni,” where Judge Kaplan is in limbo, his body dead while his soul lingers.

            Hineni recurs in the Bible as an affirmation of presence when God calls to Abraham who responds with “hineni” or here am I. Leonard Cohen used it as his final rallying cry, and Friedman’s “Hineni” explores the meaning of life after death. Where her first story ends with “a high, clear voice,” the last begins with “a loud, grinding roar,” the sounds of bookends in Friedman’s collection. “Hineni” lingers on the borderline between life and death, Kaplan’s odyssey stretched out over generations, migrations, and Yiddish-inflected influences of I.B. Singer and Bernard Malamud. (In addition, the story’s magic realism shares common ground with the Booker winning novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which explores the afterlife in the midst of Sri Lanka’s civil wars.)

            The River of Light pours through the old judge’s hospice room: “Kaplan thought he felt feathers brush his cheek and spun around, searching for a bird, only to find a pair of eyes staring blankly up at him.” The bird that had damaged his son in Durban migrates across the transnational world, alighting in a suburb of Toronto, as the Diaspora shines and takes flight: “Kaplan was on the funeral home’s roof, naked and covered in grey feathers, with his enormous wings between his shoulder blades.” In place of the scales of justice and his leather belt, Kaplan is shrouded in a kabbalistic aura of presence and absence: “Kaplan caught an air current blowing through the later summer night and rode it to face east, where a nearly full moon had risen.” Friedman flies with Malamud’s short story, “The Jewbird”: “Where was home? Kaplan wondered. Thornhill? Durban? Jerusalem? Wherever he went, he hoped only to be forgiven, so that he might remain in the centre of the Light.” His quest for home is fraught with trials, burials, and stopovers along the diasporic flight path.

            The second story, “Twist,” features Kyla, a nude model for art students in downtown Toronto. Kyla stands “contrapposto,” her hands behind her head while the students draft long charcoal strokes. Her instructor Tobias teaches her how to pose: “Tobias told her that the secret to a good pose is what he called ‘twist.’ All the drama, all the enigma that the model embodies is derived from twisting her shoulders or hips. Twist implies movement, it implies action, change.” This twisting technique applies equally to Friedman’s writing, which twists bodies, relationships, identities, and structures within and among short stories. Indeed, her prose may be characterized as contrapposto – a twisting balance in air, land, and the water of a cenote. Not only is Kyla’s friend Nurit ready “to twist herself inside out to be with” Josh Feigenbaum, but the figures on the book’s cover twist through water, as do all the shining people in the book.

            Since “The Foreign World” is set in Mexico, it relates to the book’s cover, Cenote Azul #2. The story’s final sentence epitomizes the drifting Diaspora in All the Shining People: “He still thinks about that moment sometimes, about floating in the sea’s strange, green shadows where none of them belonged, in awe of the foreign world.” To belong in the strangeness of the Diaspora, Friedman’s shining people have to twist themselves into a contrapposto configuration, and the short stories themselves must follow form. Accordingly, the endings of these twelve stories twist the structure, and each ending ricochets against another so that the collection itself is in the shape of a cubist contrapposto.

            The titular story, “All the Shining People,” presents a quartet of teenage voices, the last belonging to Melody who observes that “Time loops backwards,” in a temporal twist of migration and narration. This story and others focus on the central event of Jordan Loewenstein’s attempted suicide while jumping from a bridge in Toronto, part of the rising and falling patterns interwoven with horizontal forces between interiors and exteriors. Traumatized by her boyfriend’s near death, Melody reflects: “Waves thunder against the shore of your mind, break, wash up on the sand, leave a few shells behind. Hold them to your ear. Listen: a living animal stirs.” Melody’s elegiac fugue loops backward, unspools seconds, and attempts to reverse Jordan’s fall. Her note of redemption concludes the story: “Then I’d raise him up over the highway’s red and white lights, but instead of stopping at the bridge I’d lift him into the air, and then, like a banner, like a banner in a parade and with confetti, with a marching band I’d watch my love unfurl across the sky, to ripple and wave above the city and all the shining people in it.” Her lyrical ending hinges on the repeated “banner” that spreads across the city, parading her prose from South Africa to Canada.

            In “The Burn” Ora recapitulates Melody’s trauma and lyricism. During a Friday night dinner after lighting the candles, she burns herself and repeats a nursery rhyme: “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home. Your house is on fire, your children are gone.” Fire, flying, and home are recurrent motifs in this story, as Ora recalls when most of her hair had been singed off in a barn in Swellendam at the age of seventeen, that “in-between age.” So many of the characters in this collection belong to that in-between age, the liminal stage in their rites of passage that are complicated by migratory flights of passage. She marries Elliot Loewenstein, in part because he introduces her to the stories of Franz Kafka. Betwixt and between, neither here nor there, Friedman’s characters shine through Kafka’s shadows, liminal migration, and the contrapposti of linked short stories.

KATHY FRIEDMAN emigrated with her family from South Africa to the suburbs of Toronto when she was five. She studied creative writing at the University of British Columbia and the University of Guelph, and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Her writing has appeared in publications such as GrainGeistPRISM internationalCanadian Notes & Queries, and the New Quarterly. She teaches creative writing at the University of Guelph and is the co-founder and artistic director of InkWell Workshops. Kathy Friedman lives in Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Astoria (April 5 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 256 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1487010400
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1487010409

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.