Stories From the Hotel: red rooms

red-rooms-cherie-dimaline-paperback-cover-artOkay, I’ve changed up my list and may have to do more changes on the fly as we go. As you may or may not know, I am a PhD Candidate in the middle of trying to write a dissertation. Right now I am doing research (aka. reading a pile of books, red rooms is the fourth I’ve finished this week), so I am finding myself hard pressed to stay on track with 10-10-12. A friend of mine warned me about this problem, so now I am following up on a contingency plan to keep myself on pace.

Anyways, Cherie Dimaline’s red rooms is a series of five interlinked short stories with an intriguing narrative device/framing narrative, but I am not sure that it all pulls together in the end. I had never heard of Dimaline before but have since found out that she is a Metis/Ojibwe writer from Toronto. Although red rooms never names the city it is set in, I get the sense that it is Toronto and the hotel is close to the Skydome or the Exhibition grounds. Dimaline’s narrative device is to set up a narrator, Naomi, who works in house-cleaning at a hotel, a three-star (at most) chain hotel, as a guide to each story. She crafts each story from the objects (and bodies) that are left behind in the rooms that she cleans. I quite like this narrative setup and was intrigued to see what Dimaline would do with it. Having finished the book, I am having a mixed-reaction. On the one hand, there is enough narrative to keep Naomi’s sections interesting (they come at the beginning of each short story), but on the other hand I wish Dimaline had done more to tie Naomi’s life in with the characters of the stories. I felt like there was more to be had from this innovative framing, but Dimaline did not push it.

The stories themselves are well-written and explore interesting terrain. Dimaline’s framing device also means that at some point each story must come back to a hotel room, so that in some ways she is limited in the range of stories she can tell. However, this does not really show through in the book itself (although I can’t really think of any scenarios other than the ones she has covered that would be material for additional stories). Anyways, the first two stories all start with corpses, and, for some morbid reason, I liked these ones best. The first takes up an indigenous prostitute’s perspective and the ending is wonderfully ambiguous. The second takes up a gay Metis man’s point of view and the intriguing relationship he shares with a high end purse shop owner who is dying and obsessed with Metis history. The third story, “Room 106,” features a world-renowned Cree photographer and Demaline does some interesting meta-textual work with indigenous artists here. I think, for me, the problem is in the last two stories. “Room 207” is about the dissolution of an affair between a wealthy man and his Native museum mistress. A large part of the story deals with the actual break-up and I felt that the pacing just got way too slow for my liking. Enough that I stopped reading last night and had to finish today. Dimaline’s stories, at least in this collection, steer away from dialogue and rely heavily on narration. This can be done well but I felt like “Room 207” lacked momentum.  “Room 304,” the final story, is more interesting on a conceptual level in that Dimaline sets up three layers of story with Naomi finding a diary, Natalie (the protagonist of the story and a middle-aged, successful single native mother) reading the diary, and T. the diary’s writer. While I am on board with interesting narrative structures, the diary sections of this story really bothered me. Dimaline writes in a diary tone and I guess it just rubbed me the wrong way.

Overall, Dimaline’s collection shows a lot of promise. The framing device both gives depth to the stories and limits what she can do with them. red rooms is a good read, but I’m not convinced it’s a great one.

I would recommend this book for fans of indigenous writing.

Dimaline, Cherie. red rooms. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2007. Print.

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