Have you ever wandered down streets at night, looking in the lit windows of other people’s homes, wondering about their lives? Charlotte, the central character of We Have Never Lived on Earth, spends much of her time wondering, like the cellist in “Houseboat,” if she “has brought her separateness with her, and that, if she could only find a way to release herself from this separateness, she might feel included” (117).
We Have Never Lived on Earth is the debut collection of Kasia Van Schaik, a South African-Canadian writer. In this Bildungsroman of linked short stories, Charlotte, a nomadic young woman, leaves home, tries different careers and lovers, travels to Germany to teach, and wanders through Europe. Beautifully written and rich in allusions to women writers (Virginia Woolf, Emily Carr, H.D.), the collection captures the loneliness and chaos of the narrator’s transition to maturity.
Some of the strongest stories focus on Charlotte’s relationship with her mother, Judy, renamed Willo (no W), an aging hippie who uproots her two young daughters from their home in South Africa, moving them to Whale Mountain, British Columbia. In “How Will You Prepare for Happiness?” Charlotte remembers her mother “telling me that for each child who begins to weep, somewhere else, another stops. She learned this wisdom from a Beckett play” (10). This story includes the first instance of sexual violence. Charlotte is employed as a part-time cleaning woman in the home of two psychologists. The teenage son exposes himself one afternoon while Charlotte is cleaning his bedroom.
This incident is the first of an escalating series of attacks on women, both Charlotte and strangers, including references to the Montreal Massacre and the Cascades Mall shootings in 2016. In “Premium Girl,” an unwanted groping is juxtaposed with a fire threatening Whale Mountain. As a man creeps his hand up Charlotte’s leg, she thinks, “The fire won’t harm us . . . . The fire won’t come. Even after I’d spilled my drink all over the tall man’s lap, and removed myself from the room, I knew I was wrong” (26). A central trauma is detailed in “The Peninsula of Happiness,” which was shortlisted for the CBC short story prize in 2017. Charlotte has travelled to Mexico with her mother. In a bar on New Year’s Eve, she describes how “men circled us, oily-haired, their skin greenish under the lights” (57). When her mother starts salsa dancing with a much younger man, Charlotte returns to the motel. In the courtyard, an American cowboy attacks her: “I tried to pull away, but I was frozen in place. His body was a riptide, urgent, invincible, kilometres wide” (58). After she is rescued by the night watchmen, Charlotte climbs to the roof of the motel as an earthquake shakes the peninsula.
I remember a red sky, cloudless, taking up my entire field of vision.
I recalled the last year as a series of missteps. Each was a tiny movement
in the wrong direction, each leading me here, to this place, to the dark lobby
and to the tidal wave which was about to break over my mother’s bed, over
our two sleep-heavy bodies. (60)
Water imagery suffuses the collection, not surprising in a book with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Charlotte’s father watches as her mother is nearly swept under in a riptide off the coast of South Africa and thinks “that day on the beach had been a test, as everything had been with Judy” (42). In “Houseboat,” Charlotte’s lack of connection with those around her is captured in a paraphrase from Alice Notley’s poem “We Thought We Were Our Own”: “A world like a boat passing by. And another on the dark water. How can we stop being us?” (121). In “How to Be Silent in German,” Charlotte asks her boyfriend to help her translate Der Spiegel so she can read about German murder trials. Thinking back, Charlotte says,
It was around the time of the drowning, the summer of 2013,
that I stopped trusting men. Women were being murdered every hour
every minute even, and men were responsible for it. The ultimate plan,
it seemed to me, was to eradicate women from the earth. I don’t mean
to exaggerate. I was convinced. (94)
The shorter stories towards the end of the collection suffer from a fragmentary, surreal atmosphere, the disconnect between Charlotte and other characters manifested as a possible mental breakdown. Charlotte leaves her German boyfriend and travels from Amsterdam to Italy to South Africa and then back to Montreal. Noel, a friend from Montreal who lets her stay in his apartment in Amsterdam, says, “Your problem, Charlotte, is that you are attached to your loneliness. You don’t want to let it go” (120). Too much in these micro stories is hinted at, left undeveloped. In “Stingray,” a child asks if stingrays have memories or feelings. The question, combined with the story’s epigraph from The Book of Disquiet, seems to suggest some inescapable connection between memories and feelings, but how this connection affects Charlotte remains unexplored.
Van Schaik’s subtle writing style is effective in the final story, which returns to the mother-daughter relationship. Charlotte visits her mother, who is living on an unnamed island off the coast of British Columbia. When Willo talks about the impact shipping noise is having on humpback whales, which communicate by whispering to their calves, Charlotte muses, “I think of our triangular family of women, with our shared instruction in love and pain. How difficult it is to listen to one another” (164). Juxtaposing personal truths and imagery of ecological crisis, We Have Never Lived on Earth explores a young woman’s insights into the hazards of living on earth.
We Have Never Lived on Earth
by Kasia Van Schaik
University of Alberta Press, October 2022, 184 p.p., $24.99 (paperback)
Kat Cameron is the author of two collections of poetry: Ghosts Still Linger (University of Alberta Press, 2020) and Strange Labyrinth. Her collection of short stories, The Eater of Dreams (Thistledown Press), was shortlisted for the 2020 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. She lives in Edmonton on Treaty 6 territory and teaches writing at Concordia University of Edmonton.