Studying how things go wrong

Laura Cardiff, Special to the Herald-Leader

Pathologies: Essays

Susan Olding

Freehand Books

262 pp

"In simple terms, pathology is the scientific study of the way things go wrong." With this, debut author Susan Olding defines the theme that unites "Pathologies," a collection of essays about her own life. This intriguing book is one of four titles published this fall by the new, Calgary-based literary press Freehand Books, an imprint of Broadview Press.

Despite the clear indication that "Pathologies" will contain emotionally fraught material, the opening essay still surprises. Between a detailed list of the general themes of pathological conditions (courtesy of "An Introduction to General Pathology"), we are treated to snapshot moments of Olding's childhood family life that are, by turns, tender, heart-wrenching, shocking, and compelling: her father (a pathologist by profession) rinsing off a stolen human heart in the basement sink; her parents forcing her to choose which of them she loves best; her drunken father making a late-night Valentine for his daughter from a discarded duMaurier box; a seven-year-old Olding learning to name the organs suspended in the hospital containers.

From here, we are drawn into a series of essays that move through the writer's life, from her school years to the adult honing of her craft. In some of the earlier pieces, we find coming-of-age stories reminiscent of Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. Olding turns a scientific eye on the bizarre, unspoken rules of high school, the surprising capacity of children for cruelty to one another, the desperate longing to belong, and the equally unexpected and terrifying secret codes of the adult world. Whether she is describing the experience of being pelted with rotten vegetables (thrown en masse by her eighth-grade classmates) or, years later, the difficulties of coaching high school cheerleaders (an entirely separate species from her own high-school self), these essays display humour, compassion and startling insight.

Many essays follow a pattern similar to that of the first essay. A word or theme is defined, and aspects of that definition - quoted from an authoritative source - are fleshed out between topical anecdotes from Olding's own life. The definition of "separation" informs an examination of Olding's failed first marriage and her sister-in-law's death from breast cancer that escaped surgery and metastasized. Excerpts of Marco Polo's historical account of China's capital are interlaced and contrasted with Olding's experiences adopting her daughter there.

In the best essays, this device adds another dimension to the material, giving it a depth and complexity that carries it beyond the realm of mere anecdote. In others, the neatness of Olding's technique and her relentless fidelity to her chosen form begins to tire. In "Mama's Voices," for example, an otherwise compelling narrative is chopped into numerous small sections titled either "Play," "Stop," "Fast Forward" or "Rewind" and forced to move at the disorienting pace of the recording device that is the essay's main focus.

Throughout, however, Olding uncovers surprising riches in the language she uses, delighting in the contradictions she finds-such as "cleave, that strange word, that means both 'to separate' and 'to adhere to.'" Or "volunteer," that noble and self-sacrificing word that could formerly be used as a noun meaning "a deliberate lie." Even "pathology" has a surprising additional definition: "the study of the passions or emotions." With such finds, Olding brings new life to everyday language, just as she brings vitality and grace to the essay, a genre that has, at least in recent years, been neglected and too narrowly conceived. She reminds us that, in the hands of great writers (Virginia Woolf comes to mind), the personal essay can be a thing of beauty, all the more enticing for the freely subjective ground it covers.

The emotional heart of this collection lies in the handful of essays that deal - often concurrently - with the joys and difficulties of raising her daughter, adopted from an orphanage when she was 10 months old, and of developing her voice as a writer. Here we find an author not just announcing her arrival on Canada's literary scene, but also justifying her chosen form and material. As Olding tell us, "It takes gall to write about the living," and she evidently feels the need to defend her audacity, explaining that she practices her profession in order to serve and contribute, not to harm or exploit. Certainly the politics of writing about (and profiting from) the lives of one's friends and family could be vexed (as vexed as the politics of international adoption - another subject Olding tackles head on), but it is hard to object to the balanced, thought-provoking, and caring manner in which Olding treats her subject matter. The honesty of her perceptions and the depth of her characters need no justification.

Olding's collection illustrates that the individual difficulties are not what isolate us, but what unite us in common experience. For in writing about her personal experience, Olding describes elements of our own lives as well. Perceptive readers rejoice to find aspects of their own lives illuminated by such a skillful hand.


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