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Bonnie Burnard Biography

stories lives life novel

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Stratford, Ontario, Canada, 1945. Career: Teacher, Sage Hill, Humber School of Writing; writer-in-residence, University of Western Ontario. Lives in London, Ontario, Canada. Awards: Commonwealth Best Book award, 1989; Saskatchewan Book of the Year, 1994; Periodical Publishers award, 1994; Marian Engel award, 1995; Giller prize for Canadian Literature, 1999.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A Good House. Toronto, HarperFlamingoCanada, 1999.

Short Stories

Women of Influence. Regina, Canada, Coteau Books, 1988.

Casino and Other Stories. Toronto, HarperCollins, 1994.

Other

Editor, The Old Dance: Love Stories of One Kind or Another. MooseJaw, Canada, Thunder Creek Publishing Co-operative, 1986.

Editor, Stag Line: Stories by Men. Regina, Canada, Coteau Books, 1995.

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Establishing herself as a storyteller of the first rank through the considerable strengths of two books of short fiction—Women of Influence and Casino and Other Stories—Bonnie Burnard is recognized as a particularly sensitive chronicler of the extraordinary stories shaping seemingly ordinary lives. Her stories are thoughtful and intelligent meditations on the complex emotions attending the most powerful relationships in her character's lives (with siblings, parents, lovers, children) and with the tentative movements toward the defining moments of insight and self-awareness that accumulate slowly across years of experience. These are characters, as Burnard suggests in her first novel, A Good House, who come to understand that life, like love, is best lived with due respect for individual strength, common gentleness, absolute loyalty, and having a good ear with which to listen and learn.

Building on many of the themes and strategies that have drawn attention to her finest stories, Burnard proves herself an equally fine novelist in her management of this family saga that spans three generations of the Chambers family. Set mostly in a small town along the shores of Lake Huron, the novel begins with Bill Chamber's return from World War II, minus three fingers on his right hand, and builds slowly, tracing his readjustment to family life and to the subtle (and not so subtle) rhythms of the titular "good house," the family home around which most of the ten dated sections that structure the novel eventually orbit. As in life, the parameters of Bill's experiences and stories expand gradually to include the events shaping the lives of his children and their families, the loss of his first wife and life with a second, and the deep disappoints and lasting joys.

Not surprising given the historical reach of the novel, characters gather into a kind of generational kaleidoscope that allows Burnard to shift effortlessly from a section dedicated primarily to the story of Bill's first wife, the wise and generous Sylvia, to one that privileges the struggles of Patrick, the eldest and hopeful son, to one in which free-spirited daughter Daphne holds center stage. Adding to this polyphony is the discovery of an old journal called, optimistically, "Our New Life in Lambton County" that Burnard positions as a kind of formalized genealogy, a stable record against and through which readers can begin to interpret and reinterpret the unrecordable and distinctly unstable nuances of lives lived to the fullest. It is these most resonant of shadings that Burnard captures most eloquently. In the final section of the book ("1997"), for instance, she narrativizes the thoughts of Margaret, Bill's second wife, while she reflects on a series of photographs, some of "natural groupings" (husbands and wives, sisters and brothers), others of a more random nature. As the novel concludes, Margaret contemplates her final gesture, one in which "someone with a fine hand" would label each picture. Such an inscription, she thinks to herself, would "place" the names in some sort of knowable and familiar arrangement, "replicating the placement of the bodies" in each image, organizing the chaos of so many people and so many stories into something akin to a key, "or maybe it was more properly called a legend." In A Good House Burnard shows herself fully capable of remaining loyal to both the lives and the legends of people that she so clearly loves and respects.

—Klay Dyer

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