on January 28, 2012
Leaving Berlin is a triumph, Holmstrom's most accomplished work to date, all the more impressive because she has left the more familiar world of the novel (she has written three of them), and revealed herself - in this first offering - as a master of the short story form. Holmstrom has retained many of the qualities that make her writing so engaging: meticulous attention to detail, penetrating observations, a peculiarly acerbic yet inviting take on her characters, dry irony, humour, and a relentlessly intimate and authentic insight into the worlds she imagines. But these are stories of the everyday that also point out the uniqueness of the characters who people them. Anne Tyler meets Alice Munro.
One of the most striking effects of this book is its trenchant insights into character. They travel in familiar and exotic places - train stations, laundromats, markets, Berlin, Toronto - and meet as strangers, lovers, roommates, co-workers, wives, and sisters. Where ever they are, Holmstrom has an uncanny ability to pierce their worlds. None of these characters are evil, but like most people, weak, occasionally selfish, sometimes heroic, sometimes downright petty, sometimes defeated by life, sometimes winning small victories. I had the strange sense as I read these stories of seeing myself from the outside - as others might see me, or as I would see myself if I could bear it. Fortunately, this author does not judge her characters. They simply exist, and are vividly imagined. There is a warmth and that surprising familiarity with all of them that lures you in to their worlds. And the worlds are so varied.
There's a larger perception of the world at play here too. The stories are full of ironies, paradoxes, missed opportunities, star-crossed relationships. And they are swiftly and deftly created. I admired the economy of these stories, their ability to evoke large vistas from the briefest of details.
Every good short story stands or falls by its ending. Too often, I am disappointed by stories that finish abruptly rather than ending, sort of like the fade out technique of 60s chick-pop music. But these stories aren't afraid of plot; they are page-turners, and end in satisfying ways - never predictable, but always with style, and a masterful sureness of touch.
I can't recommend these stories highly enough. Holmstrom has shown that she can tell the kind of story that people want to read - never shallow but never pretentious, full of insights but never didactic, wise and funny at the same time. In short, a pleasure to read.
on November 29, 2011
Holmstrom is an European expatriate, and like many Canadians of her generation, this is to a certain extent a great part of what defines her Canadian-ness. Throughout her English language writing career, this grounded, yet worldly perspective and her talent for layman's wisdom has made for a beautiful(even in its darkness) reflection of the world we know. In this collection of short fiction, "Leaving Belin", her experience and observations as a European-Canadian woman herald strong, as many of the stories take place in the very time and place she inhabits. I feel our author's mission is to allow us into the private world of what on the surface are some of the most average women, the women we are, the women we know, and exposing to us what we wouldn't think to stop to consider (so to speak), which is that all of these women have self awareness, pain, a knowledge of where they are and what they have become. Sometimes I feel Holmstrom is telling us "other people don't just exist- they are human, like you". Never before did I ponder in this way the reality of what it is to be someone I don't particularly want to be, or someone I don't particularly understand and, more importantly, that I am one of these women. Exploring the depth of human-ness or existence, even ones self does not have to be cathartic, difficult or epic. People are dull, they are hopeless, they are ugly, they are pretty, some seem to be heavenly or superior, and while some are larger than life, other are barely visible. Holmstrom teaches us to see ourselves and others with a heavy does of reality and humor, and that maybe looking into someone's eyes and seeing their world isn't going to yield the expected result. There is no doubt that throughout the journey through these stories, these characters are ones upon which the reader will no doubt find themselves bestowing the distant faces or aquaintances long forgotten.
on November 16, 2011
It is the mark of a great writer to have the ability to engage the reader in a short story from the very first sentence. Britt Holmstrom is a writer who does just that. To be able to describe so many different people and environments on so few pages is admirable. I had to force myself not to read all the stories at one time - I allowed myself only one story a day so I had ample time to reflect on what I had just read. If I was forced to choose just one story I would have to pick two: "The Rebel Doll" and "Charmed". Both stories made me smile, weep and feel very close to the characters and their narrator.
I'm really looking forward to more from Britt Holmstrom's pen.
on October 26, 2011
I think it's safe to say that there are two kinds of artists: those who can actually convey what it's like to be a human being, and the other 90%. Britt Holmstrom most definitely can tell you what it's like, and Leaving Berlin is highly recommended to anyone like me who most enjoys writing that not only entertains but which also provides some recognition of those certain very human feelings we all have but cannot name. Feelings like being nostalgic for something you hated at the time, or wanting something you shouldn't, or being in love but not being in love but maybe being in love after all (kind of). Leaving Berlin is filled with those feelings, and it's a tremendous theme to have based a set of stories around.
Leaving Berlin's characters experience such feelings in part by being keen observers: they sit back and watch those around them and end up seeing more about themselves than anything. They're irreverent in a good way (not taking themselves too seriously, as opposed to being irritatingly aloof), and they're often hilarious (quite often, actually, which is one of the best things about this collection), and they want the same things we all want but like all of us are not sure precisely what those might be. Which is why it's so nice to experience writing like this-- it's just such an antidote to the easy answers and black & white insincerity peddled by film and television and a few too many writers. Things like the ending of "The Rebel Doll" will stick with you just because it's real and you've never heard it put so well before.
This is writing for people who hate hollywood endings, who hate when it's obvious how a story is going to end, and who hate characters that don't ring true. And it's writing for people who love well-written and hilarious prose that never once talks down to you or suggests that the writer is somehow above the audience. Leaving Berlin is a page turner-- until you get to the end of a story. That's when you'll put the book down for a second, not wanting to move on just yet because you've been left with an honest and beautiful notion (beautiful because it's honest) that you want to just sit back and take in for a while.
on October 17, 2011
There is a sense of melancholy at the heart of "Leaving Berlin", a recognition that, in the final analysis, we live and exist and even LOVE in solitude, subject to our fears and preconceptions, prisoners of a self-ordained fate.
The stories that make up this collection have multiple settings and feature characters searching for some aspect of their existence that can better define them, give meaning to their dull, unsatisfying lives. Relationships are complicated, fraught with misunderstandings, mismatched personalities. Lovers, siblings, friends cannot be relied upon, for their have their own heavy crosses to bear. The best stories, including the title tale, "The Blue Album", "Doing Laundry on Sunday", "The Company She Kept", "The Sky Above Her Head", are fastidiously crafted, utterly bereft of sentiment. Ms. Holmstrom is a skilled stylist, sharp enough to recognize that "less is more"; her prose is clean, unadorned, and refreshingly economical.
Quietly, with little fanfare, Ms. Holmstrom has secured her place on the Canadian literary scene with a body of work that is literate, intelligent and thoroughly humane. She is well acquainted with the existential loneliness that lives at the very core of our psyche, a sadness that cannot be defeated by conventional treatment or salved by religious dogma.
The pain goes far too deep...