A dying dog, a pair of doves, blindness and an old hotel feature in eleven deceptively light tales of isolation in Ursula Hegi’s Hotel of the Saints, a collection that spans about twelve years of Hegi’s short fiction. These are stories of ordinary people leading lives of quiet desperation, estranged from society, from relatives, sometimes from themselves,. They are left to forge an uneasy peace with a sorrow-tinged existence.
In the title piece, Lenny, a seminary student trying to find his faith, helps his frail and incapable Aunt Jocelyn overhaul her newly inherited Hotel of the Saints after the death of her husband. The old hotel rooms come alive as sunny Mediterranean colours and whimsical themes replace the drab greyness, and Aunt Jocelyn and Lenny are transformed.
It always comes back to sitting alone at a desk,” she said. “I do between 50 and 100 revisions. So the way I used to write is the way I still write.
In The Juggler, a mother tries to protect her daughter from marrying a man who is going blind. The mother’s anxiety about her child quickly leads to conflict about the nature of their relationship and what it means to rely on another too much.
I do it to really go very deeply into the characters to understand the characters, to explore the characters. And a lot has to do with language. I write fiction as if I were writing poetry.
In one of the briefest but most powerful stories, titled The End of All Sadness, Hegi gives voice to an abused woman who finds a place of peace amid a life of violence. A single mother brings home a man who’s been sleeping on the ground by the pond. She marries him after he hits her for smiling at the postman. In her strange euphoria, she has no space even for her daughter.
After I’ve written a story, after I’ve gone through it 50 or 100 times, each time I feel those feelings. I go through that experience with the character. And after I have finished the story, on an emotional level, it has become my experience, and I am altered.
In Doves, a quiet, lonely single woman finds herself in a country bar. “A lean-hipped man asks her to dance, and as she sways in his arms on the floor that’s spun of sawdust and boot prints, she becomes the woman in every song that the men on the platform sing: the woman who leaves them; the woman who keeps breaking their hearts.”
The woman with the dying dog in Lower Crossing comes to realize that she keeps herself busy with trips to the local cafe, work in her plant shop, living with her middle-aged sister, and occasionally picking up men at the hardware store, as a way of coping with the loss of her best friend.
Ursula Hegi is the author of five novels: Intrusions (Viking Press, 1981), Floating In My Mother’s Palm (Poseidon Press/ Simon and Schuster, 1995), Stones from the River (Poseidon Press/ Simon and Schuster, 1995), Salt Dancers (Simon and Schuster, 2001), and The Vision of Emma Blau (Simon and Schuster, 2001). She has also published nonfiction, as well as two collections of stories, Unearned Pleasures (Scribner Paperback, 1995) and Hotel of the Saints, (Simon & Schuster, 2001).