A temple of the soul
Gritty stories about being in a middle-aged woman’s body.
July 26th, 2023
“Debbie Bateman takes an unflinching look at what our bodies get up to when our minds are riddled with conflicts, major and minor.”—Reviewer Caroline Woodward
by Caroline Woodward
Debbie Bateman’s debut collection of short stories Your Body Was Made For This (Ronsdale $21.95) is described by three-time Governor General’s award nominee author Sharon Butala as a “wonderful, fierce, and above all intelligent collection that grows in power with each succeeding story.” To which I will add, it is a rare and gratifying event to read fiction which does not hold back about the truths of being in a woman’s body, especially an aging woman’s fed-up and out-of-shape temple of the soul.
We meet Pauline in the first story and understand she is now fleeing her marital home, the first occasion being many decades earlier when she was a violated, furious teenager. Now she is a seething, and still furious, menopausal woman wracked with cramps, bleeding non-stop for weeks, alternating between sudden chills and hot flashes, her body image at an all-time low. Bateman deploys a grimly hilarious sense of humour and the reader is primed for mishaps involving mind and body when an astute friend recommends a yoga challenge class: “‘Listen to your body,’ says their instructor… her voice is soothing. She steps precisely onto the centre of her mat, and Pauline’s throat coats with an afterwash of anxiety.”
For years Pauline has put up with her hypercritical husband Oliver, a successful accountant with high blood pressure, so we immediately understand how the very sight of such precise movement triggers Pauline. Bateman’s narrative voice is wonderfully energetic, replete with vivid and pungent images. Some sentences snap with tension, others roll out luxuriously, each one essential to the rhythm of the story unfolding. She takes an unflinching look at what our bodies get up to when our minds are riddled with conflicts, major and minor.
There are zingers, those sentences which contain a wallop of wit and wisdom, stopping us in our tracks in every story. Here’s Brianne emerging with forceps clamped to her skull as a 1950’s newborn in the title story: “Everything was out of proportion, not the least of which, her potential. She contained two million eggs, her lifetime quota, or so the world believed at the time. Later, the notion that females couldn’t generate new eggs proved false, but by then the damage had been done. Brianne and other girls like her learned their most essential purpose was to guard an ever-dwindling stash and hope one day a smooth, pure egg hatches a new neckless creature yowling at the open air. ‘It’s a girl,’ said the doctor. Sloppy with anesthetic, Brianne’s mother smiled.”
Or this one, from Hanna in rehab, in The Love Drug: “Truth is better served to those whose mouth is already familiar with the taste of lies. People like me who’ve fallen from grace, not those who are faithful and kind.” Likewise, one woman discovers the sadly familiar fact that one gym buddy likes her better when she’s fat, when she’s the one failing at goals that they both aim for in life. This ill-fated and highly conditional friendship is based on a superficial connection which is all about superfluous flesh.
Debbie Bateman is the kind of writer who can make you laugh out loud, grit your teeth in anger and struggle not to shed tears, all in the same story. Her fictional women and men reflect reality, our best and worst emotions about our physical selves; squeamish, prudish, fearful, wounded, repulsed, proud, desirous, celebratory. These people experience betrayals and they do the betraying too. Some of them stuff themselves with junk food and then do battle at the gym with their obesity. One woman decides to stop her downward spiral into prescription drug abuse and checks into her first rehab clinic. Her son suffers through her relapses and loathes her lies. The pain and joy of first love, of childbirth, of adultery, of living with a complete lack of desire or of desire gratefully revived from long-dormancy are revealed. So are the intimacies, both ugly and glorious, of her people, young or old or middle-aged, gay or straight. We recognize the emotional truth in these stories about women making decisions to have children, or not, or to refuse implants or any form of prostheses after a radical mastectomy.
It is especially gratifying to encounter one or more of her characters, her fully-realized 3-D people, in another story told from yet another character’s point of view. Crossing the Line is a most satisfying story precisely because Bateman creates strong, struggling characters we’ve come to care about and cheer onward. In this story three of them converge, all training for a marathon run! Perfect metaphor.
Sundowning, the final story in the collection, shows the way to resolving some of the lifelong issues affecting Pauline, whom we met in the first story, Secret Workings, as she was hauling a massive suitcase down the stairs of her immaculate showcase home. It’s a heart-breaker.
We simply do not often read stories in contemporary literature with as much gritty depth and maturity as these by Debbie Bateman. When tackling marital ultimatums, say, or the profound impact of parental cowardice, this writer delivers with visceral honesty and a seemingly innate sense of pacing and diction. We readers are in the hands of a highly skilled writer, one who has served a long apprenticeship to debut with a collection as accomplished as this one. Brava! 9781553806929
Debbie Bateman is the mother of three sons who lives with her husband and soul-mate in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. Reviewer Caroline Woodward is the mother of one son who lives with her husband and soul-mate in beautiful New Denver, BC.