Review: THE OTTAWA REVIEW OF BOOKS (Stella’s Carpet)
Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Persian carpets are rich in many ways: their history, their materials, their colours, their designs, their complexity—and, as it happens, their symbolism. The Stella of the title is introduced to us as she prepares for a book launch. It is a book about Persian carpets. She is accompanied by her father, William.
William Wheeler became fascinated with Persian carpets during dental school, and, thanks to a successful practice, he has amassed an impressive collection. It helps that his second wife, Fatima, works for a carpet merchant who is the husband of her cousin Parisa. Stella, William’s daughter from his marriage to his first wife, Pam, has begun to take an interest, too. Stella is now a teacher at her childhood school and lives with Pam. But she has a strong relationship with her father and visits her maternal grandparents often. Her paternal grandparents are distant in place and in person.
The relationships in Stella’s Carpet are complex and multifaceted. William is still close to Pam’s parents, Stan and Maria Lipinski, and often takes his son by Fatima, Tanner, to visit them. Tanner is in fact named for Stan. Stan and Maria immigrated from Poland to Canada after World War II and are Roman Catholic, though they pepper their speech with Yiddish phrases. As it is with most of the characters, there are aspects of their lives that have not been shared with others. The reasons vary. Some have had personal trauma. Others are hesitant to disclose private aspirations. Still, others simply don’t know how to communicate their feelings.
The narrative starts in the present, but moves quickly into flashback mode, moving back and forth in time to fill in the background of each character. Author Black skillfully shows not just how each character sees him- or herself but also how other characters see them. The reader encounters an array of acts and thoughts—insight, emotion, kindness, judgementalism, and imperfect self-awareness—that give each character his or her own special depth. Each struggles with something. Each gives of themself in some way. Each has personal defects. And each has limited perspective.
Strengths and flaws are revealed as the narrative presses forward, yet there really isn’t anything one can call a plot. The characters are simply living their lives—growing and learning, celebrating and suffering, ageing and dying. And this is perhaps the genius of the novel. Black is showing that lives are like Persian carpets. Each is unique and complex, full of colour, but none is identical. And each has a flaw. In Persian carpets, this is a deliberate choice of the weaver, a nod to humility. In people, flaws are inevitable. We have to live with them, and most of us try to overcome them. Black shows how this is possible, even for someone like Pam, who spends most of the novel in a very narrow and selfish state of mind.
Black prudently does not overplay the symbolism of the Persian carpets, because this is not a novel about carpets. It is a novel about the complicated task of living as a human being.
Stella’s Carpet is published by Now or Never Publishing.