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The Meaning of Children, by Beverly Akerman

Beverly Akerman's first vocation is genetics research. In her first book, The Meaning of Children, meaning tends to be somewhat scientific - usually externalized and observable, but not always revelatory.

Akerman follows children through the stages of adolescence, childbearing and the empty nest, occupying different decades, genders and narrative voices throughout 14 short stories. Disparate parts come together with recurring themes of sex, death, guilt and social prejudice.

This isn't the invented childhood of imagination and wonderment.

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In Tumbalalaika, a couple fights about relocating their family, recounted by their eldest daughter and witness to the screaming matches. It's meant to be a vignette, just a snapshot of a few days in the peak of an entire matrimony's worth of frustrations. But since there's not much allusion to the years missed, the reader doesn't quite feel the resentment building, but merely observes it in quips of forced dialogue about "who wears the pants," and in the blunt symbolism: a hole punched in the wall predicts a broken home. It lacks the depth of some other stories, and so the series feels inconsistent.

But in The Mysteries, Akerman perfectly captures the anxiety of second-grader Rebecca after the birth of her little brother. Left to walk to school alone by her beleaguered mother, Rebecca meets a strange man who talks of hot chocolate and puppies. Her inner monologue runs wild wondering if the "don't talk to strangers" rule applies when the stranger talks first. ("Why don't they tell you what to do about moments like this when they tell you so much other stuff?")

Rebecca's innocence, her perception of the horror laced in her teacher's silences, and ultimately her fear and a slight exaggeration of events to the police leave the reader almost as confused as Rebecca about the man's intentions, all because Akerman writes as a believable eight-year-old.

Perhaps most compelling is Like Jeremy Irons. A mother "colonized" can only acknowledge her abortion in the third person, and painstakingly describes the procedure. The story defies the reader not to have a visceral reaction to her pain, her oscillation between a mother's guilt and a feminist's fierce resolve, and the sound of vacuum suction that's "found something to hold onto, some meaning.…"

Other stories are told by a raging psychotic who claims to have murdered a four-year-old boy and a husband who questions the lineage of his infant daughter while his once unfaithful wife is away on business. Here, again, the relationship's history is written rather obliquely, but it's clear their daughter will bring reconciliation.

At various times, children both corrupt and redeem: each other, family relationships and the female body.

Parallel to Jeremy Irons is The Woman With Deadly Hands, who kills everything she touches. It reads like a fairy tale, save for Akerman's avoidance of happy endings. As the woman narrates: "To each and every version of paradise there is a unique serpent spoiler." She is cured of her deadly touch when she becomes pregnant. Stylistically, it's at odds with the rest of the series, but it provides a more literal allegory for children as salvation.

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The Meaning of Children is not a seamless collection. Each story is an independent experiment, with varying results. But the sum of its parts is positive.

Katie Hewitt is a freelance journalist living in Toronto.

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