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AUTUMN

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By Irena Karafilly

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The Montréal Review, February 2017

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an excerpt from

THE HOUSE ON SELKIRK AVENUE

by Irena Karafilly

Guernica Editions (2017) 301 pp.

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It is autumn, 1997 and Kate Thuringer is back in her hometown to help her college-age daughter settle into her new life. A professional photographer, Kate has lived in Western Canada for nearly three decades. Before her marriage, however, she survived a turbulent year in which Québécois terrorists kidnapped a British diplomat and murdered an innocent politician. The middle-aged Kate is obsessed with the past, particularly with the memory of a poor francophone student with whom she had been involved during the historic October Crisis. Back in Montreal, she is plunged into a mid-life crisis, struggling to reconcile her romantic past and her melancholy present. The House on Selkirk Avenue is a complex novel about obsessive love, family bonds, aging, and the impact of political events on innocent people's lives.

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I

It starts out to be a perfectly ordinary day; a mild, erratically windy morning on which the fall sky seems undecided between sun and rain and the shrinking hours hint at nothing beyond the usual small blessings and vexations. Wearing robe and slippers, Kate has stepped out onto the balcony to pick up a drying bra, but something in the air prompts her to linger under the canvas awning, gazing down at the leaf-strewn lawn, the empty McGill Ghetto street.

It is still early and the morning is blissfully hushed, scented with must and rain-soaked earth, and a heady whiff of dying chrysanthemums. Not for the first time, Kate thinks it intriguing that autumn should generate this powerful sense of fresh beginnings, this aura of sweet expectancy. It may be an annual occurrence, yet there is something oddly stirring about it, this seasonal communion between inner and outer weather.

Montreal is Kate’s hometown, but this is her first time back in nearly a decade. Her daughter has just enrolled at McGill University and Kate has come from Edmonton to help her shop, decorate, make the transition to independence just a little smoother. It is early September. Megan is about to run off to her morning class, but at the last moment pauses at the window to check out the weather.

“Hey, Mom, can I borrow your umbrella?” She tosses the question as she zips her knapsack, but then looks up sharply, arrested by Kate’s silence. “Please, Mom!” she says, hands clasped in theatrical appeal. “P-l-e-a-s-e!” She is seventeen years old. She looks like an imploring cocker spaniel.

“Will you bring it back?”

“Yes!” Megan rolls her eyes. She reaches into the fruit bowl, heaves her knapsack, then flutters off, waving, her mouth full of apple and earnest promises. “Have a good day, Mom!”

“You too, sweetheart.” Kate closes the front door with a long exhalation. Her daughter refuses to keep an umbrella, but has no compunctions about using others’ whenever it rains. It was because of all the lost umbrellas that Kate finally bought herself a raincoat just before they left Edmonton; a chic, hooded European import.

It ends up raining all morning and Kate decides this would be a perfect day to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, easily within walking distance. Halfway through lunch, though, the rain abruptly stops and, once out in the rain-sweetened air, she no longer feels like being cooped up indoors. Her camera slung from her shoulder, she strolls along Sherbrooke Street, pausing to gaze at art gallery windows, clothing boutiques, Oriental rug displays. Outside the Ritz Carleton Hotel, an aging panhandler tries to talk the doorman into letting him use the hotel’s facilities. The doorman is a uniformed giant with a square-jawed face in search of an expression. He orders the panhandler to scram, but the puny vagrant is still there, still badgering, when a white limousine slithers to a stop outside the hotel’s entrance.

A professional photographer is never entirely off the job. The doorman picks up the panhandler, grabbing him by the scruff of the neck as one might a kitten. Click. He deposits him on the corner and gives a quick but decisive shove before dashing back to assist the new arrival. Click, click, click. If you have a camera, a photograph is just a click away; a good photograph a dozen clicks away, but a great one easily over a hundred.

It is a damp afternoon but still mild, with barely an intimation of winter in the air. An old black umbrella lies abandoned in the gutter, wind-twisted and vaguely reproachful. Kate slows down and raises her camera. There is the gratifying scent of her own wool and leather, of fresh coffee and buttery croissants baked at the Van Houtte.

As she strolls on, something new begins to stir in Kate Thuringer’s heart. This is the first time in months that she has been alone, at leisure, free to go wherever she wants, do whatever strikes her fancy. Quite suddenly, she feels almost happy. It’s easy to understand autumn’s melancholy, but how do you explain the sweetness?

She keeps on strolling, stopping only once to photograph a pair of twins in matching red rain boots, splashing through a large, muddy puddle. All the interesting shops end at Guy and the reasonable thing to do would be to stop and head back east on the other side of Sherbrooke. There is an optometrist’s shop just across the street. What she should do is go in and pick a pair of reading glasses. That’s what a sensible woman would do on a free afternoon.

But Kate crosses the street and continues west. Not far, just another block, then up hilly St. Matthew Street. It is windier here. A private-school boy is running down to catch a bus, his striped tie flapping. A dog barks. A few damp leaves come whirling onto the sidewalk. Kate has made no conscious decision to visit Selkirk Avenue, but this is where her feet seem to be taking her.

And then, there it is: a street she remembers as keenly as anything in her nearly five decades on earth. A street she has managed to avoid for over a quarter of a century but now finds herself drawn to with the same perverse compulsion that occasionally makes the tip of her tongue seek out an aching molar.

Selkirk is a short cul-de-sac walled off from the grassy grounds of an adjacent Catholic seminary. It has a row of Victorian greystones, with bay windows in front and fire escapes in the back. When she last saw the street, the greystones were occupied by students and artists and budding journalists. They have all been converted into upscale condos.

Kate slows down, snapping another photo, wondering who lives behind the shiny maroon door. Man? Woman? Couple? If only she could find a magic key that would make her shrink. Let her enter: silent, invisible.

A few minutes go by. Dawdling across the street, Kate watches a postman drop a pack of mail into a large wooden box. He stops to shift his bulging bag, flashes a toothy smile in her direction, then turns and disappears up Côte-des-Neiges Road.

A banal Friday afternoon, but, like a common thief, Kate glances over her shoulder, then crosses the street and raises the lid on the black mailbox. A quick peek is all it takes. Bills, letters, a theatre brochure, all bearing the same name. Antonia S. Offe.

Very gently, Kate lowers the lid. If only she were bold enough to ring the door bell and introduce herself.

The thought is accompanied by a small, inner chuckle. She is, when all is said and done, a fairly conventional woman. All the same, she stands gazing up at the second-floor window; a large bay window that was once so drafty you couldn’t go near it all winter. But the windows have all been restored and painted, the once-shabby street quaintly gentrified.

Kate tries to suppress her sudden resentment. She is dimly aware of the crows clamouring over the grey seminary wall, the honking of car horns. A bus comes trundling down Côte-des-Neiges Road, followed by a wailing ambulance. And then, for a moment or two, there is silence. It is only then that she hears someone playing the piano; something poignant and vaguely familiar, which she cannot quite name. She is still trying to identify the piece when a woman appears in the upper window, stopping just long enough to glance at the street, as if to check out the weather. An elderly woman with a cloud of stylish, pewter-coloured hair.

She quickly vanishes but then, almost at once, re-appears in the window, peering down at the street below. Kate guesses the stranger must have belatedly registered her own lurking presence. She may look perfectly respectable in her new fall outfit, but let’s face it: a city like Montreal must have its share of well-dressed yet unbalanced women.

There is, in any case, no reason to linger. The piano is still playing as she crosses Côte-des-Neiges Road, stopping for coffee at a familiar convenience store-cum-snack-bar. A middle-aged woman may not look her age, but on a damp day her bones know the truth. The dépanneur is now owned by a Korean family but still smells of apples and brewing coffee, bubble gum and freshly baked baguettes. It is a smell that hurts.

Kate goes to the counter and orders a cup of coffee, listening to Céline Dion wail in the background. A couple of customers are bantering with the waitress, braying with occasional laughter. Kate takes out her agenda and starts a shopping list, resisting the impulse to re-read a personal letter stashed away in the depths of her shoulder bag; a fading missive in a blue envelope that unexpectedly surfaced in Megan’s new apartment, along with two old Youth Orchestra photographs.

The coffee is hot and strong but offers minimal solace.

At length, Kate slides off the stool and tosses the Styrofoam cup into the waste bin. There is a basket of apples by the entrance, a stack of newspapers in both French and English. She had planned to go into Le Faubourg, buy a few items for dinner, but something about the scent of those freshly-picked Macintosh apples stops her in her tracks.

It takes her all of two minutes to turn around in hopes of finding a packet of letter envelopes. She finds them at the very back of the store, then returns to the counter to write a short note. She slides one of the envelopes out of the packet and inserts the note, silencing an inner voice mocking her foolish impulse. She seals the white envelope and scribbles the stranger’s name with her purple felt pen.

Antonia S. Offe.

Not that she really expects anything to come of it.

Westmount Fall (Montreal) by Pim Sekeris. Oil on woodpanel — 24" x 30" (Kurbatoff Gallery, Vancouver)

II

There is something odd about the woman’s face. One of her eyes, the left, is much lighter than the other: the colour of honey or translucent amber. The right eye is distinctly brown, and this slight anomaly compounds Kate’s confusion as Antonia Offe opens her door to fetch her mail, catching Kate with her hand inside the capacious mail box.

“Oh!” Kate jerks back, as if her hand has been stung by some invisible creature holed up in the depths of the box. “I’m sorry! I … I was just leaving you a note.”

“A note?” The woman stands appraising Kate with her mismatched eyes. She tightens her black cardigan over her breasts. “And here I thought you were stealing my mail,” she says, with just a hint of amusement.

“What? No!” Kate blinks, conscious of heat rising at the back of her neck. She opens her mouth to say something, then reaches out and plucks the note she has just dropped in the mailbox. What a stupid, stupid impulse, she scolds herself, clearing her nose. She hands over the note, waiting.

Antonia Offe is just about old enough to be her mother, yet it isn’t easy to think of her as elderly. She is tall and sinewy in the yellow silk robe she wears under her black cardigan. She is well tanned. The facial skin is deeply carved by time, but the eyes glow with some sharp, inner defiance. She is somewhere in her late sixties but has none of the timidity, the hints of melancholy and doubt that cling to aging women like whiffs of stale perfume. She stands in front of the open door, reading the note. It is barely four lines long.

“I see,” she says at length, making a small, noncommittal sound. She surveys Kate from top to bottom, taking in her long, ochre raincoat, her camera, her stylish Italian rain boots. This, Kate thinks, is one of those women whom nothing ever escapes. “So, when exactly was all this … when were you last here?” Antonia Offe asks.

“Oh, a long time ago. More than twenty-five years,” Kate says, sounding flaky to her own ears. She hesitates for a moment, then opens her bag and fumbles for her international press card, displaying her photograph. At least the woman will know she is who she says she is.

Antonia Offe glances at the photo. Then she raises her eyes, a slight frown settling over her features.

“A journalist! Your note says you’re a photographer. You’re not here to interview me, are you? Without an appointment?”

“Interview you?” Kate flips the name over in her muddled brain. She has no idea who the woman is. “No, not at all,” she says. She begins to explain but just then, a black cat appears at the top of the carpeted stairs. It lets out a meow and, abruptly, Kate’s nervous little laugh becomes a tiny hiccup of heightened distress. The cat is an ordinary cat with a bushy tail and slanted green eyes but, years ago, Kate had a cat like that; her first cat, Pablo, who disappeared the week she lost Guillaume Beauregard.

“I had a cat once. Black, just like this,” she says.

“Did you?”

“Yes. It’s a long … a very sad story.” Kate averts her gaze. “It still hurts to talk about it.”

“I’m sorry.” Saying this, Antonia Offe lets out the gentlest of sighs. A tree might sigh like that, stirred by an ocean breeze. All at once, tears start pressing behind Kate’s eyes; unrehearsed words come tumbling out of her mouth.

“You probably think I’m a little cracked,” she hears herself say, fighting her swelling anguish. “And, well, maybe I am but … I just can’t wrap my mind around it, you know? The fact that it’s been over a quarter of a century! And it’s changed so much! I mean … everything. I thought it might help to … oh, I don’t know what I thought—” She trails off, raising a hand to cover her stinging eyes.

Antonia Offe hesitates, clutching the top of her open cardigan.

“Well, you’re in luck,” she finally says. “I’d planned to go out but I’m waiting for an important telephone call.” She checks her watch, then steps aside with a broad, inviting gesture. She almost smiles. Her cat jumps sideways, getting out of the way. “Would you like to come in? You may as well. It’s as good a time as any.”

“Oh, thank you,” Kate says. “Thank you so much!”

“Just take off your boots, will you?”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”

III

The smells, the sounds, they’re wrong! All wrong, Kate says to herself, surveying Antonia’s foyer. There is the scent of fading roses, the ticking of a grandfather clock; the clamouring past colliding with the adamant present. Lightheaded, Kate peels off her raincoat, doing her best to answer Antonia Offe’s questions. Yes, she was brought up in Montreal but lives in Edmonton now. Why Edmonton? Because her husband was offered a position at the University of Alberta. He’s a cardiac surgeon. She is a staff photographer at the Edmonton Journal, but was just a student when she lived in Montreal.

“Where does one study photography here?” Antonia asks.

“Actually, I was doing English and Music, at McGill.” Kate speaks as neutrally as she can, grappling for composure. “I was very young. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.”

At this, Antonia smiles kindly, casually instructs Kate to make herself at home, and leaves her to go upstairs, her silk kimono swishing around her calves.

Kate has yet to see the upstairs bedrooms, but the last two words, tossed ever so lightly, fall like stones into the puddle of her rising confusion. At home! Has anyone, anywhere, ever thrown a more challenging directive her way? There are quantum physicists who have tried to advance the theory of backward-flowing time, but others have been quick to dismiss it. Kate knows in her marrow: it must be dismissed!

She circles the living room, stopping at the window to gaze down at the leafy street. She rests there, inwardly shaken, because the bay window, the view of the street, are the only things that appear unchanged. It is garbage pickup day and the waste bins, the plastic bags dumped on the wet sidewalk, look the same as ever. A squirrel has been tearing its way into a lumpy green bag and now scurries up a tree. The trees are the same trees: maple mostly and one mountain ash, its orange berries stirred by the flapping wind. The houses across the street are the same houses; they haven’t been converted into chic condos.

Kate’s skin is starting to prickle, the way, she imagines, a burglar’s flesh must feel while stealthily exploring some absent stranger’s private space. No doubt about it: there is a certain thrill in it, but also an underlying tension. There is the temptation to give up the search, to abandon all hope of finding any valuables and look for the nearest exit.

The room Kate explores—a room that used to have one wall panelled in brown cork, another lined with perpetually cluttered bookshelves—looks larger than she remembers. Through a tearful blur, she takes in its polished hardwood floors and refurbished fireplace; its pale decor, all ivory and beige, its occasional splash of colour.

An exquisite Kashmiri silk rug decorates a wall once hung with posters of Don Quixote and Che Guevara; a large combine painting with sculptured, grotesque faces replaces a print of Picasso’s Guernica. Oh yes, it’s all quite beautiful, but all the same, fingers of nausea keep tugging at Kate’s throat.

She is aware by now that Antonia Offe is an actress. In the foyer, there are dozens of photos showing her on several Canadian stages. Kate is grateful for Antonia’s casual kindness, but she detests the showroom feel of this vast room: its pale, touch-me-not elegance, its impeccable order. Not only that: the kitchen she remembers—a narrow, bright room with a high ceiling and hanging herb bouquets—that kitchen has disappeared! Its window is still here: a large window with a cushioned seat where, once upon a time, she would lounge with a book, waiting for the kettle to whistle, the pasta pot to boil, watching the rain come sizzling down, the snow settle on downtown roofs and treetops. This south-facing window is now part of the expanded living room, a vast room with a formal dining area facing a newly-created galley kitchen.

Ever since she stepped into Antonia Offe’s home, Kate has been trying to make sense of the structural changes that have transformed several small apartments into two spacious condos. She has figured out that the wall which had once separated Guillaume’s bachelor apartment and the one next door—this old wall has been knocked down, leaving Antonia with an office and terrace on the first floor, as well as two bedrooms on the upper one, accessible through a new, spiral staircase. In the old days, an aspiring playwright and his girlfriend lived on the top floor; a woman with an invalid father in the adjacent apartment facing the alley; a singer named Pauline Julien down on the street level.

But, as she herself has said, more than a quarter of a century ago!

She stands breathing shallowly, a woman with a husband and two grown children, feeling as confused, as bereft, as a dispossessed orphan.

A few minutes go by. Kate sits on one of the window cushions, listening to the thrumming rain, jolted out of her reverie by Antonia’s approaching footsteps. She comes up to Kate, perfumed and coiffed and dressed: a narrow black skirt, a long turquoise cardigan, a paisley scarf, and an eye-popping collection of jangling bracelets; more silver and turquoise bracelets than Kate can count at a glance.

“So, have you had a good look?” she asks. Her eyes are both tea-coloured now, Kate observes with interest; she must wear tinted contact lenses in public. Antonia doesn’t yet know what happened to Guillaume Beauregard, but it suddenly comes to Kate that, sooner or later, she is bound to ask.

“You have a beautiful home,” she says.

“Thank you! Now, how about some tea? There’s nothing like a cup of tea on a fall day, is there?” she says, pausing to open a window. The radiators have come on full blast, humming under the window seat. “Earl Grey okay with you? A New York friend brought me some heavenly Lord Bergamot.”

“Earl Grey will be great, thank you.” Kate smiles. She follows Antonia towards the kitchen, pausing before a large photograph of an egg: a pure, white egg set against a pale sandy background. It is the only thing she likes in the entire place; this exquisite image of fertile, unexplored possibilities. She likes the photograph despite the fact that, on this very spot, a painting used to hang all those years ago. A gouache painting she hugely admired, done by Michel Beauregard, Guillaume’s younger brother.

“Can I do anything?” she asks.

“Oh, no. Thank you. You’re in luck though. I happen to have some divine French wafers!” Antonia says, smiling in Kate’s direction. She bustles about, reaching into a cupboard for tea, the stainless-steel fridge for milk. She is a tall woman with a brisk, memorable presence. Every one of her movements seems easy and graceful, yet at the same time somehow … choreographed. Well, she is after all an actress, Kate reminds herself.

They sit facing each other on the matching ivory sofas, the tea tray set between them on the coffee table. Kate feels intensely self-conscious under Antonia’s penetrating gaze. The way she sits there, calmly sipping her tea, makes Kate feel she is not in control here. But then, she hasn’t really been in control since she left Megan’s apartment, has she? To think that she actually got up the nerve to intrude on a stranger!

When she says something to this effect, however, Antonia waves Kate’s scruples away.

“Oh, please,” she says with a little theatrical frown. She remembers at least two occasions when she herself came close to ringing a stranger’s doorbell. “I just didn’t have your resourcefulness!”

“Resourcefulness? More like chutzpah,” Kate murmurs.

Antonia laughs. She has a surprisingly youthful voice for a woman her age. Sooner or later, everyone longs to revisit some place they had once lived in, she says. “I mean, is there anything more seductive than our own past?”

“Oh, maybe not,” Kate says.

As she sits there, cradling her tea, Guillaume’s face starts to float up from the back of her brain. The image is accompanied by an odd, fluttering sensation in her chest, as if in the presence of some as-yet-undefined danger. She watches Antonia’s crayoned lips stretch to form a question but just then—an unexpected reprieve!—the phone starts to ring somewhere in the back. Antonia rises from the sofa and crosses the room in her stockinged feet. She will take the call in her office, she says.

Yes, a reprieve. Antonia must be intrigued by the private drama that has brought a nostalgia-smitten stranger to her own front door. Kate doesn’t know how she knows this, but the intuition makes her fidget against the pretty silk cushions. She wants to go. She doesn’t want to go. She is like Otto, who keeps slinking into the living room, pausing to sniff delicately around the wafer box, then disappearing, for no apparent reason. Right now, he is back again, purring audibly as he sidles up to Kate, rubbing against her nylon-clad legs.

She is a woman with a weak resolve, that’s what she is. Kate sighs. When she was nine or ten, she secretly sheltered a stray kitten she’d found in a back alley, knowing her father would force her to give it up. Something of the sort is what she feels right now, waiting for Antonia to return.

She has swooped up Otto into her arms and sits stroking between his eyes, acutely aware of the scent of drenched earth and dying leaves; of wood smoke and denuded trees. Call it nostalgia, call it a mid-life crisis, but she has reached a time in her life when the past suddenly looms at her back, refusing to be ignored. She’s about to turn fifty, but old age is still as unfathomable as the afterlife. Kate remembers the year her mother turned fifty; recalls her father making inane jokes about the Big Five-O. She did not, of course, expect to be spared; she did think it would take much, much longer to get there. Years ago she read somewhere that, once upon a time, only witches were thought to live past the age of fifty. Any woman blessed with longevity was believed to be possessed by diabolical powers.

Times have changed, of course; old women are no longer burnt at the stake. But how mind-boggling to think that, all at once, her future has so little future in it. And how inconceivable that Guillaume, too, would be middle-aged by now, no doubt married, probably a father. Kate has no idea whether he still lives in Montreal, but recalls that he was about a year older than she. To think that, if alive, her Guillaume would now be half a century old!

All this is still going through Kate’s head when Antonia’s grandfather clock chimes the half hour. The sound startles Otto, who wriggles out of her arms and bolts out of the room, as if chased by invisible spirits. Kate’s husband collects old clocks and antique watches. In his own way, he too is obsessed with time. What they seem to have in common is an unvoiced dread not so much of mortality as of the taunting passage of time.

Kate glances at her watch, reminded that her daughter will soon be coming home from her afternoon class, that she herself has yet to shop for groceries, that her son has promised to call from Vancouver. Otto is meowing for his dinner, casting reproachful glances in her direction. Kate can hear Antonia murmur in her office but cannot tell whether the conversation is approaching its end. She is sorely tempted to run off, but is too well brought up to leave without a word of thanks.

A few minutes go by. The grandfather clock keeps ticking. Otto goes on meowing, sounding dispirited. At last, Antonia appears, looking preoccupied.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “I couldn’t—”

“It’s okay, no problem,” Kate says, trying for a smile. “But I’m afraid I must leave now. My daughter will be coming home soon. I still have to shop for food.”

Although this is true, Kate’s mind leaps to primitive Africans’ fear of losing their soul on being photographed. How frustrating she used to find it in the early days, travelling on assignment, thwarted by irrational dread.

She is being just as irrational. Kate knows it even as she stands wriggling into her raincoat, exchanging polite goodbyes. Antonia plucks a business card out of a pretty Venetian bowl, inviting Kate to come back another day for a proper visit. Kate says she may take her up on it, but, as she turns to go, her eyes flick back to the spot where Guillaume used to sit and practise his cello. She remembers him rehearsing a Haydn cello concerto, the last composition she ever heard him play. She recalls his telling her how Haydn’s head had been axed off the moment he gave up the ghost, with scientists clamouring to examine the renowned composer’s brain. Would one of them succeed in pinpointing the cerebral secret of musical genius?

Kate recalls teasing Guillaume on hearing all this, saying something about the mysteries of his own eccentric brain. She no longer remembers exactly what she said but, as she hastens down Antonia’s staircase, can vividly see Guillaume laughing at her little joke. He had the sort of laugh that often made strangers smile at him in passing; that made Kate think that whatever she’d said must have been singularly delightful.

The concerto is still playing in her head as she steps outdoors, greeted by a gust of autumnal air. She closes Antonia’s door and inhales deeply, seized by an overwhelming need to photograph the crisp leaves being swept down from the top of a tree. The tree is a glorious Canadian maple; it is rustling in the late-afternoon breeze, next to a ripped garbage bag with a red handle-tie. But what Kate longs to capture is the soundless flutter of a dying leaf, whirling down towards the sidewalk.

Unremarked. Unlamented. Forever red and gold.

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Irena Karafilly is an award-winning Canadian writer, poet, and aphorist. She is the author of several acclaimed books and of numerous stories, poems, and articles, which have been published in both literary and consumer magazines, as well as in various newspapers, including the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Her short stories have been anthologized and broadcast, winning literary prizes such as the National Magazine Award and the CBC Literary Award. She currently lives in Montreal. For more information, please visit: www.irenakarafilly.com

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