On the Beach in Spanish Room (Janis Spence)

On the Beach in Spanish Room, by Janis Spence
a collection of interconnected short stories
Listening Time: roughly 4 hours
10-digit ISBN: 0-9734223-0-0
13-digit ISBN: 978-0-9734223-0-6
Narrated by Janis Spence

Library Digital Download of this audio book available from Overdrive.com

On the Beach in Spanish Room by Janis Spence is a collection of six previously unpublished inter-connected contemporary short stories that follows the lives of a group of friends from early childhood through a rebellious and sometimes catastrophic young adulthood and on into an unsettled middle age. With a cast that includes Father Joe, who can no longer remember when he became a bishop, how he fell in love with a stray cat or whose child he gave away, to Spider LaPlante, tattoo artist and sometime drug dealer hired to do an unusual job, these stories are peopled with characters struggling to comprehend the cruel and funny vagaries of life and love.

Winner AudioFile Earphones Award

Audio Book Reviews

From AudioFile Magazine

What an unassuming but brilliant little gem this recording is. Set in Newfoundland, all six stories stand proudly on their own, but together they have the sweep of a novel. The reason is Janis Spence’s marvelous characters, “who wore their lives as casually as big sweaters.” She gives them added dimension by bringing them back at various times in their lives. In “Life With the Barons,” for example, listeners meet Nina, the adopted daughter of a well-off couple. Two stories later, the truth about her parentage is revealed in “Father Joe.” An experienced actor and stage director, Spence gives a masterful performance of all the roles she’s created—and it doesn’t hurt that she’s got that incomparable Newfoundland accent.

From StoryTeller Magazine

This reviewer is a long-time fan of talking books, especially those that benefit from being read aloud: a creepy ghost story, for example, or one whose characters have accents, or, as in my personal experience, one about upper-crust Brits, whose sarcasm was lost when read on the printed page, but understood when the reader put it in their voices. Unfortunately, most talking books are taken from best-seller lists, so a CD of a lesser-known writer is a pleasant find. When everything’s done right, talking books can be a unique pleasure. And, fortunately, Rattling Books—in the case of On the Beach in Spanish Room—has done everything right.

From Robin McGrath, Northeast Avalon Times

On the Beach in Spanish Room takes place in St. John’s and Toronto, and it follows the lives of a variety of interconnected characters, including the various members of the McMaybe, Beatty, Baron, and Mills families. There is a liberal sprinkling of oddballs, like Spider LaPlante the tattoo artist, Oink the gourmet biker (he learned to cook in “Con College”) and Shelly the transsexual drug dealer, but most of the people we encounter here are just ordinary folk. These ordinary folk are very familiar – they live on Colonial Street or Circular Road, they teach or run a business, are married, go to church, have jobs. Bit by bit we get to know more about them, their drinking habits, their affairs, who is bonking the maid and who smacks his wife, who has moved into the guest room or onto the sofa in the living room. As the young ones grow up and their parents grow old, we see them struggle with divorce, infidelity, forgetfulness and forgiveness. One of the most extraordinary things about Spence’s characters is that they are not particularly likeable, yet by the time we have finished with them we have enormous sympathy for their faults and failings. Sometimes she manages this by letting us view one character through the eyes of another, as when Margaret McMaybe looks at her husband Vern and sees not the fifty-year old failure but the seven year old boy he once was. It isn’t that they have changed, but that we have matured and learned to tolerate their shortcomings.

The CD cover tells us we are listening to six short stories, but On the beach in Spanish Room is really more like a novel in that all the various strands weave in and out, in surprising and ultimately satisfactory ways. Various themes – daughters becoming slaves to their parents, cats filling the void that humans have left, pregnancies that may or may not have happened – appear in a multitude of guises. The Baron baby might be any one of several babies, real or imagined, while barrens as a geographical feature become a scene of birth and rebirth. One particularly poignant story-line follows the life of the much-married Edna Mills. As it opens, she is coming to the end of a week-long drunk; out of booze, out of pills, out of food and out of money. “This is how the homeless become homeless,” she thinks. By the time we know why she is on a tear (her long-time married lover has unexpectedly died and she cannot even attend the funeral), we have been given a wonderful description of life in a low-end apartment building and discovered the extraordinary kindness of the disadvantaged towards one another.

Father Joe, promised to God when he was ill at the age of seven, is not a particularly spiritual man, but is fated to be a priest because his mother has decided he will be one. When he is bullied by a superior into going on a camping trip where he inevitably gets lost, he doesn’t even ask God to help him as he knows he’s not worth God’s attention. His vision quest is a bust, but through sheer doggedness he ends up a Bishop. He’s a complex character, easy to despise, yet you just feel pity for him.

Janis Spence is well known in Newfoundland as a talented actor, playwright and director. If these stories were in a book, she would now be known as a talented fiction writer also. But the great, added gift she gives us here is her reading of the text. She is a wonderful actor, and without sounding the least bit over-the-top, she shifts from hearty priest to ancient crone to drugged-out con artist in the blink of an eye. And she is funny! On the Beach in Spanish Room is a wry, witty, humorous, compelling narrative that will stay with you for years.

From Sheilagh Walsh, The Current

If Janis Spence was a painter, she’d specialize in portraiture. On the Beach in Spanish Room is wonderfully painted with unforgettable characters. Real people, crashing through life often inflicting suffering, revealing themselves blotchy, acne-prone, wart-covered and then occasionally surprising you with rivulets of kindness in polluted rivers of love. Spence is well known for her work as an actor – “Gullage’s”, “Up at Ours”, “Codco” – and as a playwright – “Catlovers” and “Walking to Australia”. More recently she read the “Shipping News” for CBC Radio and “Donovan’s Station”, Robin McGrath’s award-winning novel for Rattling Books. Now she has recorded her own unpublished stories on CD for Rattling Books as well. Some stories read as through she wrote them for the genre, the songs and ditties her characters sing, the insistent soft knocking at a door, the character that, “sucks in air with queer strangulated howls.”

A narrative thread runs through all the stories, following a group of characters from early childhood through middle age and doing it in much the same way a one-man stage performance turns in and back on itself, slowly revealing its insights and truths. Oh, it’s black. And sometimes bleak, yet amazing in its ability to lift the characters above it through irony, humour and the character’s own sense of the absurd. Spence’s stories are never short on irony. That’s particularly true of the first two stories, “Naked Ladies” and “Life with the Barrons,” my favourites. It’s as if the characters, well-defined and distinct as they are, come with an automatic default, a funny-bone, that trips when the situation is blackest in order to survive. And so they can poke fun at a grotesque old goat of a man who “keeps their revulsion alive” or the saintly lace-curtain townie bitch. They are givens that must be accepted and contended with. The humour is partially due to their youth. We see characters age and shade.

The title story, “On the Beach in Spanish Room” is bleakest and most ambitious as though the language of the dull, mainland setting mutes the peaks and valleys of Spence’s vibrant writing. She paints powerful images – the priest who “can no longer taste the doctrine he soaked in all his life” – the religious mother who “looks like a garden crow”, and the couple who “wore their luck as casually as big sweaters”. Spence shows the savagery in relationships but there’s no question that unexpected acts of kindness are the blessed shafts of light in her world, reminders of the ying that goes with the yang.

On the Beach in Spanish Room by Janis Spence is another EarLit audiobook title from Rattling Books, Newfoundland publisher of Canadian unabridged audiobooks (aka audio books). Listen, a way to read more.