everybody has everything by Katrina Onstad – book review

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by Edith Cody-Rice

Katrina Onstad has a little of the Alice Munro in her, but it needs honing. everybody has everything, her second novel, deals, as does the fiction of Alice Munro, with the individual and the personal and all the subtleties that make up a character, not just a character in a book, but character in life. Plot is less important than character revelation and development. In this novel, a young, urban and very modern couple inherit briefly the young son of acquaintances who have been in a car accident. This single event transforms their lives, brings tensions to the fore and  makes them look into themselves, although they may not wish to do so. The reader can actually see much more about them than they realize about themselves. The irresponsible and mercurial husband becomes the responsible parent to this child. The organized and hyper responsible wife is unable to cope with mothering. We see also how the wife has married a version of her reluctant-to-grow-up father, although this is never directly addressed in the book and we experience how we all drag our perceptions of our childhood into our adult lives. To Onstad’s credit, all of her characters hold surprises within them.

The personalities are subtly drawn, with all the contradictions of people in real life. Even a minor appearance, such as that of the husband’s mother Diana, reveals in a few pages a straightforward bluntness and we can imagine the life of other characters influenced by her beyond the pages of the book.

Katrina Onstad creates a complete and believable world and deals skilfully with the chaos of identity and with the pressures on a modern couple, but her work is somewhat marred by strained similes. A simile should create an image in your mind that approximates a scene. For many of Onstad’s similes, it is difficult to see an image or the simile is a distraction. For example, she describes Ana’s sister-in-law putting on an apron which divided her body like “the twisted end of a wrapped candy”. I cannot see this image in my mind. I can see the wrapped candy but not the person. She describes the act of urinating, of a very minor character who makes a single brief appearance, as the sound of the “urine rushing with the force of a shaken beer can being dumped down a sink.” The only importance of this is that it attracts the child’s attention but not for any important purpose. What does this add to the story?

Towards the end of the book slips and typos begin to appear that make the reader think that perhaps the editor just got tired. A woman who is clearly a stranger suddenly morphs into the husband’s mother. What seems to be a paralyzed arm in a photograph, which is initially attached to a woman, is commented upon as being attached to a man. A single character “Richard” becomes “Richards”. These careless mistakes, easy to make no doubt, are appearing more and more in books and one wonders why.

The denouement of the book comes with the disappearance of the child. It focuses the mind and energies of the characters. Alice Munro, in her short story “To Reach Japan”, recounts a similar event, the disappearance of a small child for whom the major character is responsible, but her economy of language leaves the reader to decide much of the denouement. She understands the power of the unsaid.  Katrina Onstad  has a tendency to overwrite and although she is talented, a further paring of her language could make her stories more compelling.

everybody has everything is published by McClelland and Stewart