Night Light: Stories of Aging


192 pages
ISBN 0-19-540552-8




Edited by Constance Rooke
Reviewed by Robert Seiler

Robert Seiler was Assistant Professor of General Studies at the University of Calgary.


This remarkable book has been advertised as the first anthology of short stories to focus on aging. The editor, an associate professor of English at the University of Victoria and the editor of The Malahat Review, has reprinted some of the finest short stories on the subject by leading American, British and Canadian writers. The twelve stories in this anthology take the reader on a fictional journey into old age as a celebration of human dignity, even when the circumstances that surround the elderly protagonist — including poverty, illness, and loneliness — are rather dark.

Not surprisingly, writers like Tillie Olsen employ circular structures to convey the sense of life as a cycle. We enter the circle at birth; as we grow up we take on an individual shape; the figure we draw completes itself at the moment of death. So it is in “Tell me a Riddle,” where Olsen situates Eva’s “steerage of memory” upon a “circular sea.”

In John Cheever’s story, “The World of Apples,” Bascomb, the laureate, recalls his boyhood vision of an old man, naked and “bellowing with joy” as he plunges into icy water. This plunge cleanses his body as well as his spirit. In Guy Vanderhaeghe’s “Dancing Bear,” Dieter travels in memory to a sort of crossroad where as a child he learned that there is “yes, well, sometimes cruelty too” (p. 178).In his old age Dieter has become that bear, that “man in masquerade.” In “Mice and Birds and Boy,” Elizabeth Taylor tells the story of a very poor old woman who strikes up a friendship with a young boy who lives in one of the houses which were part of her family’s estate. Mrs. May feels compelled to tell him all about her “different world.”

What unifies the stories more than anything else is the motif of the “riddle” or “mystery” of the human heart. As Olsen points out in her story, each of us takes the journey to the self alone. In response to her grandson’s question, “Tell me a riddle,” Eva can only say: “I know no riddles.” She has been “forced to live to the rhythm of others” far too long; now she must understand why. The reader is required to think long and hard about a story like “The Scorpion,” in which Paul Bowles describes (with very few concrete details) how a nameless old woman retires to a cave to prepare for the death, or possibly the birth, which will complete the circle.

Death stalks the pages of Night Light like a churlish phantom. The effect is not fear, which results from anticipating the end of the journey into old age, so much as hope, specifically the hope of spiritual renewal, which results from sharing this or that protagonist’s zest for life. The characters encountered here, from Lalla in Michael Ondaatje’s “The Passion of Lalla” to Harry in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Old Love,” are indignant time travellers for whom death has become a dim protocol, not an experience.


“Night Light: Stories of Aging,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 20, 2024,