The Juliet Stories may appear to put its exotic foreign politics, which involve a family of white North American protestors living in 1980s Nicaragua, front and centre, but Waterloo, Ontario’s Carrie Snyder keeps most of the anti-imperialist rhetoric off-page. The first half of this feisty yet unsatisfying “novel-in-stories” is so concerned with sibling bonds and marital stress that it doesn’t gain a firm handhold on its setting—it’s also told from the naive preteen perspective of the eponymous Juliet. And by the time the Friesen family moves up to Canada in the second half, Nicaragua itself has been reduced to a distant, if formative, memory.
It’s this juxtaposition—between developed and developing worlds, stability and uncertainty—that’s at the centre of the book, Snyder’s second. Of Juliet and her younger brother Keith, she writes, “They haven’t considered that it might change them to straddle borders this way, that they might be forever altered, forever unable to choose a side.”
But this isn’t backed up by the later stories; we hardly ever see such fence-sitting at work, let alone its negative consequences. Indeed, once back in Canada, pretty much all of the drama in Juliet’s life can be chalked up to plain old teenagedom: she struggles with her new school, she’s worried she’s turning into her mother. A tense moment on the playground, when Juliet asks herself what happened to “the self who followed fisher boys into a cave, who ate shark,” is a rare connecting of the dots between past and present, and the scene comes alive as a result.
Some of the Nicaraguan stories also have their moments, and “Flight”, which shows the onset of terminal illness from a painfully vulnerable and innocent point of view, is the collection’s high point. For the most part, though, The Juliet Stories misses the mark. Its novel-in-stories format feels misleading, too: the first half is cohesive enough to be more properly called a novel-in-chapters (aka a novel), while the second skips so wildly through time that even Juliet herself is nearly unrecognizable from story to story. The centre doesn’t hold.
And that’s to say nothing of Juliet’s own growing family, or her youngest brother, Emmanuel, who jumps from being a toddler running around naked in Nicaragua to a smoking diner employee by book’s end, with just a few scant appearances in between. These people are complete strangers to us, every time.
House of Anansi, 304 pp, $22.95, paperback
(review originally appeared in the Georgia Straight, April 19, 2012)