Cary Fagan’s My Life Among the Apes was longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and it’s easy to see why. Fagan’s stories are striking, the subtlety of his language enhancing the emotion within the human relationships he explores. Two of my favourite stories in the collection feature the public space of a diner, and the connection between people who interact seemingly on the most casual of levels. In “I Find I Am Not Alone on The Island,” a waitress forms a lifelong bond with a favourite customer whose name she doesn’t even discover until he dies. In “The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese,” a waiter who takes pride in his job despite the crappy working conditions spends an unusual New Year’s Eve at work. The unexpectedness of lasting connection is what makes these stories so lovely. The moment when the waitress, years after having left the diner, feels the need to share a literary allusion the customer had mentioned to her in passing, hints at a far deeper significance. And the scene where the waiter realizes the importance of his job is heartwarming.
My favourite story, “Wolf,” is about a Jewish man who returns to Germany to visit his granddaughter. Seeing a Holocaust memorial, all he can think of to say to his granddaughter is that he doesn’t feel qualified to judge it. How can he, how can anyone really, express such an experience? The tension between history and the present simmers throughout the story, inflecting his visit with much that is left unsaid. It’s a powerful story, and the ending makes you wish to read more, even as you feel the story had ended on a perfect note.
Oddly, it was the title story I found least affecting, about a bank manager who finds comfort in his obsession with Jane Goodall when he has to do a difficult task. The writing was good, but the story felt disjointed, and at the end I was, like one of the characters, utterly unmoved.
Overall however, the collection is a strong one. The simplest of details — a violin in “Wolf,” a lost magic trick in “The Floating Wife” — take on much significance, and Fagan’s writing teases your mind with so much that is deeply felt, but left unsaid.
Thank you to Thomas Allen for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.