‘Irina’ by Mavis Gallant

Irina by Mavis Gallant, 1974

The magic trick:

Telling the reader about Irina; then showing them a different story about the same character and family

Welcome to a week of holiday stories on the SSMT site.

This one is a slow burn. Its pace, seemingly so pleased with itself that it never feels compelled to worry about narrative momentum, annoyed me. But I came around. There is a shift in perspective, a few pages in, that keeps things interesting.

The first section explains Irina’s life to the reader. We go through years and years of family tree, learning about the nature of various relationships, with special attention on Irina’s marriage. While it’s a third-person narration, it’s occasionally made clear that this recap is erring on the side of Irina’s children. Essentially, we are getting their side of the story.

So, it’s a little mischievous when the narration shifts from backstory to action, and we soon see that the children have it all wrong. They don’t seem to understand their mother’s life at all. They’ve misread her actions and disregarded her feelings. The second section of the story shows the reader the titular woman, and the family, in an entirely different light.

It’s a tell and then show. And that’s quite a trick on Gallant’s part.

The selection:

She suddenly sent the same letter to all five children: “This Christmas I don’t want to go anywhere. I intend to stay here, in my own home.”

They knew this was the crisis and that they must not leave her to face it alone, but that was the very winter when all their plans ran down, when one daughter was going into hospital, another moving to a different city, the third probably divorcing. The elder son was committed to a Christmas with his wife’s parents, the younger lecturing in South Africa – a country where Irina, as Notte’s constant reflection, would certainly not wish to set foot. They wrote and called and cabled one another: What shall we do? Can you? Will you? I can’t.

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