Margaret Atwood first discovered the work of Mavis Gallant through a story Gallant wrote for the The New Yorker about a convent school in Montreal where the girls are made to wear rubber aprons in the bath. Atwood, who hails from Canada, says she remembers thinking, This person must be Canadian. Who is she and how can I read more of these stories?
On this month’s fiction podcast, Atwood reads “Voices Lost in Snow,” which appeared in the magazine in 1976 and can also be found in the short-story collection “Varieties of Exile.” The story—one of the dozens that Gallant has had published by The New Yorker in the course of over fifty years—is part of a largely autobiographical series about a character named Linnet Muir. Muir is a young girl raised in what is now a suburb of Montreal by eccentric, detached parents who do little to shield her from the concerns and preoccupations of their adult lives—or to explain anything that she witnesses. “Dark riddles filled the corners of life,” Gallant writes, “because no enlightenment was thought required. Asking questions was ‘being tiresome,’ while persistent curiosity got one nowhere, at least nowhere of interest.”
Linnet accompanies her father to his oyster lunches and, in this story, on a visit to a prospective mistress at a time when, she later finds out, he is secretly ill and close to death. Linnet is an observant child and, in her memory of this day, she grasps onto the word “frôler” (“to brush against”). The story has the feeling of a series of gentle brushes: it is filled with fine-lined details that never quite break through the fog muffling the interactions between adults and children.
You can hear Atwood read “Voices Lost in Snow” and discuss it with the New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, by listening above or by downloading the podcast for free fromiTunes.