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Pathologies

by Susan Olding

Pathologies is an apt title for Kingston, Ontario-based writer Susan Olding’s first book, a collection of personal essays. In each of the 15 pieces, she dissects moments from her own life in the manner of a forensic examiner searching for the root causes of how “things go wrong.” Over the course of the collection, she demonstrates the ability to sculpt and craft a variety of seemingly unrelated “stories” into a continuous narrative, with each vignette flowing nicely into the next.
    Olding begins and ends with the motif of pathology, a field she imbues with significance as it is her father’s profession. Using the metaphor of the pathologist’s microscopic analysis of tissue samples to identify disease, Olding examines the pivotal stages of her life and the numerous roles she has played: the daughter of a brilliant but distant alcoholic, the teacher and counselor of dysfunctional high school students, the reluctant cheerleading coach, the woman unable to bear children, and the writer striving to carve her place in the world.
    One of the most compelling and fully developed essays is “Push-Me-Pull-You,” an emotionally-charged account of the author’s struggles to connect with her adopted daughter. Here, Olding relates her experiences with international adoption, and the troubling aftereffects of her young daughter’s early abandonment to a Chinese orphanage.
    Strictly speaking, Pathologies is a collection of essays, but the deeply personal and at times self-reflexive nature of each piece evokes the genre of memoir. Likewise, Olding’s creative blending of straight first-person narrative with unconventional stylistic motifs (lyrical quotations from Keats, symbolic excerpts from medical and other reference sources, temporal shifts, memories) serves to destabilize the traditional definition of the literary essay. Through a series of thoughtful meditations, the reader is left with the singular impression of having witnessed firsthand the creation of a vivid self-portrait.