Sharon Butala‘s newest collection of short stories, Season of Fury and Wonder, published by Coteau Books, is a thoughtful and sincere look at life from a perspective largely ignored in literary fiction – older women. This collection of, sometimes searing, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories offer windows into worlds we don’t often want to contemplate or tend to imagine.
In each of the stories we walk into the thoughts and memories of an elderly woman. While each one’s circumstances are different, they all have at least one thing in common; they have outlived the majority of their loved ones. While that might not mean they are completely alone, the sense of isolation permeates these stories like a whiff of scent. We can’t really see it, but its always present. An unwelcome guest in a house crowded with memories.
Whether the person at the centre of the story is clinging to their independence by living on their own, or is in a ‘retirement community’, it doesn’t seem to matter. You can feel isolated in the midst of a room crowded with people and while having a conversation. As these stories make clear isolation can also be caused by ones own memories.
When you no longer have people that share the same memories as you, who have lived in the same moment as you – whether a friend or romantic partner – it doesn’t seem to matter who is in your life now. As one of the stories so clearly points out, family isn’t necessarily the answer. If they don’t have the same experiences as you, or interests, what do your really have in common?
In Season of Fury and Wonder Butala raises the questions and concerns about aging that nobody really talks about. Politicians and social workers are concerned with the physical concerns of an aging population – where do we stash them safely out of the way – but no one seems to address their emotional and mental needs. As long as their fed and medicated we don’t have to worry about them.
But Butala reminds us older people, older women in particular, are real people. They’ve had lives and experiences that have shaped them. However, slowly but surely all that’s defined their existence has dripped away. Whether it was employment, marriage, friends or children it doesn’t matter. It means there’s a void in their lives that can’t be filled.
Few of the characters we meet in Season of Fury and Wonder are the subject of systemic abuse or anything of that sort. However, the pictures drawn of their lives makes us realize how our society treats the elderly as best out of sight and out of mind. Butala has done something remarkable in that none of her central characters are subjects to be pitied. In fact, you have the feeling most of them would be affronted to be considered in that manner.
In Season of Fury and Wonder we meet a remarkable collection of women who are determined to control their own destiny in spite of circumstances and family. Not since Margret Lawrence gave us Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel has their been as real a portrait of aging in print. These women may be on their way out but they’re definitely not going gently.