If you glimpsed Shaena Lambert strolling along a ritzy foreign boulevard, or sitting at an upscale outdoor café, you might, in your mind, suppose that she was an actor, probably a European one. Hearing her sophisticated laugh wouldn’t disprove the hunch. But the Vancouver writer only ever contemplated being an actor for a very short time. In 1980 she studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, leaving after the first year because she “was much too self-conscious to actually be on-stage”. So she returned home to study in UBC’s creative-writing program. One might be forgiven for saying that thereby hangs a tale—or tales, plural.
Perhaps even more than the short stories in her first book, The Falling Woman (2002), or her novel Radiance (2007), the 10 pieces in her new collection, Oh, My Darling, show that her talent lies in both art forms. Her dialogue, always absolutely believable, is unique to each character. The story lines too have perfect pitch: nothing is explained but everything is revealed.
The title story is a terrifying and mysterious look at the interior life of a woman who discovers she has breast cancer. Familiar fictional territory, some would say. But there can be few other writers who have evoked the ordeal with more literary power.
“Most of the stories in the collection,” Lambert says, “grew out of long periods of writing, putting the pages aside, writing the thing again, putting it down once more, weaving through the material, shucking the original shape in favour of something new.” But in the case of the lead story something else happened.
“It more or less pounced on me,” she says. “In February 2012 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after going through all the treatments, I wrote that story in August. The original draft—a bad draft—was very flat on the page. “Then one day I was sitting in a coffee place attempting to fix it. I was writing in my journal, getting down all the different ways I had worked to heal myself: exercising, eating a really balanced diet, and so forth. I had finished the radiation and was on Tamoxifen. And this voice came out of my pen and said, ‘But wouldn’t it be terrible, Shaena, if you ended up like one of the characters and weren’t able to see the end of the story?’
“I was shocked. I thought: ‘That’s terrifying.’ And then I thought: ‘There, that’s the voice I’ve been looking for! I’m going to use it.’ And I did.” Ten days later the story was finished. (A happy update: “I’m healthy now. I’ve had two surgeries, and I’m fine.”)
Lambert’s book shows a real understanding of the physical Vancouver—the spirit of it, the way it feels, its quality of light. Another of the stories is a memorable addition to the growing fictional literature involving Stanley Park. Although the park is really only a passing locale or backdrop, it’s almost as real a character as the woman who, as Lambert describes her in the interview, “heads from one place—the aquarium—to another, going through the darkened city to Granville Island, ruminating on her marriage”.
She goes on: “What I was trying to do was to have the back story rise up into the main story without suffocating it. I just wanted to keep her moving through the city while she’s thinking.” Lambert is a master of the back story.
Vancouver isn’t the only real estate she uses. She comes from one of those impossibly accomplished and cosmopolitan families. Her elder brother is Canada’s ambassador to the Netherlands and is married to a Costa Rican. Her younger brother is a translator in Britain, married to a Parisian. (“My mother has six grandchildren, but my two kids are the only ones who grew up speaking English.”)
Lambert’s father was a Vancouver lawyer who took his family to Barbados for a year when the government of the newly independent nation invited him to help write its tax policy. Shaena was only eight at the time, but her memories of the island are strong enough to flavour another of the stories. There are other examples of reusable memory: stories set in Britain or the U.S. They cross class lines as well as national borders.
Her deeply held progressive views are another element of the work, one she also uses sparingly but effectively. She is married to Bob Penner, whom some consider the campaign and communications brains behind Mayor Gregor Robertson. Environmental issues are a special concern, and she and her family spend an increasing amount of time at their place on Cortes Island, which she finds conducive to writing.
“I think my next book will be a novel,” she says. “I’m working on one now. Actually, at the moment it seems to be going back and forth between wanting to be a play and wanting to be a novel. So far it’s morphed about four times. I’m just going to let it emerge. Work to the centre of whatever it is. Only yesterday I realized that I was missing the psychological heart of the whole thing!”
So saying, she laughs a very serious laugh.