Fiction Review by Judy LeBlanc

Denise Roig, Brilliant (Winnipeg: Signature, 2014). Paperbound, 247 pp., $19.95.

BrilliantBrilliant is an apt title for Denise Roig’s third collection of short stories in which the word itself becomes a refrain like a dropped jewel appearing randomly in a variety of contexts. The word describes Abu Dhabi, that shining city sprung from the desert, so much a presence in these stories it takes on the depth of a character itself. Its inhabitants rile against it, are seduced and altered by its heat and money, affronted by its boldness and materialism, humbled by its sacredness.

The GPS in “Please Drive the Highlighted Route” has a name and a gender, and yet as a directional device, Fiona, as she’s called, has little aptitude. While Fiona sets her adrift along Ontario highways past big-box stores under a grey sky, Deborah recollects her life in Abu Dhabi. “She’d spent four years waiting to come back but here she was: still suspended.” These stories are rife with comings and goings and confusions over the way home—is there really such a place?

Doctora Latifa appears in the three stories titled “Oasis” and functions in this collection as a more accurate directional device than Fiona; her insights navigate us through the historical changes that made the United Arab Emirates a country in 1972 and catapulted Abu Dhabi into a cosmopolitan metropolis. Based on the Canadian nurse Gertrude Dyck, who went to the desert in 1962 and stayed for thirty-eight years, Doctora serves as the quintessential witness and moral compass of the collection. In “Oasis 1962” she observes, “No amount of money will erase who these people are. The sky, the heat, the emptiness, will keep us rooted.”

Brilliant affords us the delight of linked stories. Sometimes the endings are not quite complete, but then we encounter the same character again, giving the collection, taken together, a novelistic feel. Mathieu is having an affair with Angie in “Fridays by the Pool” and several stories later, in “19th & Khaleej Al Arabi,” he comes to terms with his habit of infidelity when he comforts the attractive and grieving wife of a friend recently killed in a cycling accident. It’s in another story that we meet the driver, unknown to Mathieu, who hit the stranger on the bicycle.

Roig adopts the voices of a broad representation of Abu Dhabi society complete with colloquialisms, a sprinkling of Arab terms and Tagalog-tinged English. Characters range from a fifteen-year-old Indian Brit to a boy-lusting Egyptian pastry chef, a host of disenfranchised domestic servants, a weary Anglican pastor, and a large cast of mall-cruising, coffee- and cocktail-soaked bored wives from the west. This latter group lives in lush villas with underpaid servants and occasional bouts of first-world guilt. Angie’s maid, in “Fridays by the Pool,” “shoots Angie a look that lands where she knows it will, right in Angie’s uneasy sense of western justice and entitlement.” Sometimes the decadence is outrageous fun; there is the jet setting “local” Emirati who regularly picks up a girl for the weekend, has his way with her, and on Sunday morning sends her back to the airport perched like a mama bird on a nest of bills in a cash-stuffed Hummer: an image that paints the character of Abu Dhabi in bold and audacious tones. These tales are told amongst the ex-pat community with mockery and a hint of moral superiority. Yet, as Doctora observes, “In the desert there isn’t much you can do but submit.”

The author is keen to pass on her considerable knowledge of this part of the world: its economy and social structure, its injustices, and inanities. At times an excess of information turns the prose away from the story and into reportage. In “Coffee,” Loissa, who resides in a shelter for Filipina women marooned in the UAE, explains, “In shelter we are 300 Filipinas….Head to head, toe to toe….too many crying Filipina. Embassy say nothing. Our country need this country.” The author’s compassion for the very real plight of women migrant workers in the UAE is evident, but the complexity of her character’s psyche is not.

Some images are expected: “a man in a starched white khandoura strolling down the vaulted halls.” Alternatively, Roig is at her best when she takes the reader into a deeper place and reveals something not easily known. In “Please Drive to Highlighted Route” we see through Deborah’s eyes the moon landing on the domes of the Grand Mosque: “And finally at month’s end, they glowed brilliant white. One could mark time by the domes.” In the nuanced scene at the end of “Vicarage” Tina realizes that the charity work in which she’s been absorbed has made her unavailable to her teenage son who is now headed for an Emirati jail.

Back in Canada, Deborah grieves for Abu Dhabi, a city she finally comes to understand in the limited way we understand any place, lover, child, or parent, only to the extent that they reveal themselves to us. And in the last installment of “Oasis,” Roig offers up one final image so concise it’s seen as if in a camera’s brilliant flash. Beneath a “forty-five gallon oil drum that looks as small as a can of cola” amidst the sand dunes, Doctora’s driver pulls out a small carpet and prostrates himself on “the sand without end....I feel him praying for us all.” Meanwhile, mere miles away, a great city sits atop that same shifting, inscrutable desert.

—Judy LeBlanc

As in The Malahat Review, 191, Summer 2015, 97-99