Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Christene A. Browne’s Two Women (2013)

The cover of Christene A. Browne’s Two Women pulled me back to a literary pilgrimage I made to Regent Park, in Toronto, after I read Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy.

But Regent Park is not so much a character in this novel as the women themselves. Though, which two women? There are two pairs. And the lines between them blur, though in an intriguing, not muddling, way.

Second Story Press, 2013

Second Story Press, 2013

Two of them notice Bernice in the hall of the building, while “she stood there huffing, having what she would later describe to her daughters as a mini-stroke (since she was prone to exaggeration)”.

First: “The petite woman appeared overly distracted as she struggled with a bag of laundry in one hand and an infant in the other. When she finally noticed Bernice, she looked at her with the blankest of stares and asked in a quiet voice, ‘Are you okay?’”

Next: “Another tenant exited from an apartment a few doors away. This tall woman wore a sleeveless dress that drooped off her emaciated shoulders. She also carried a small baby in her arms. Her auburn hair, which was cut in an uneven bob, looked as if she had chopped it off in a fit of anger. The bottom part of her face appeared masculine with its square jaw and cleft chin, but the rest was softened by her button nose and light-blue eyes. She looked as if she hadn’t slept for days.
  ‘Are you alright, Miss?’ she asked in a strong European accent.”

The other pair of women are Bernice’s daughters, Ava and Eva: twins, middle-aged, blind, each the exact reflection of the other, each adoring their mother’s storytelling.

“‘Is that where we get our singing from?’ Ava interjected.
‘Yes, yes, of course. I thought I already told you that.’
‘Never!’ the twins said together.
‘Well, now you know. Let me get back to the story.’”

Bernice’s voice is often entertaining, not only for Eva and Ava, not only for the neighbour women Rose and Violet, but for the reader as well.

“‘It always feels better when you do it with someone you love rather than someone you don’t really care for,’ Rose added.
‘Our mother told us that bowel movements are much more satisfying and relaxing,’ Ava said.
Rose and Violet looked at each other and burst out laughing.
‘Your mother certainly has a way with words,’ Violet snickered.”

Some passages are slightly overwritten. Readers could hear Violet’s snicker without having it expressed directly. And readers could sense the tension of the day without having a storm, could feel Rose’s frustration and liberation without having it observed so markedly.

“A few days later, there was an ugly downpour. The mood outside mirrored the one indoors. From the moment the tw women arrived, the twins could hear the worry in each of their laboured steps and in the silence before and after their greetings.
‘Are you two okay?’ Eva asked Rose and Violet
‘It’s those awful husbands of yours again, isn’t it?’ Ava suggested.
The tense pause confirmed the twins’ suspicions.
‘Sometimes I just want to kill him,’ Rose said softly in a matter-of-fact fashion.
It was clear that she felt liberated by her words.”

But the themes of Two Women are dramatic and powerful and the story is worth some additional emphasis.

“She regretted not listening to her mother’s advice. As she wiped away her tears, she heard the sound of two female voices singing. The melody was very soothing. It felt as if the song was just for her. Her mind drifted to her mother, then to the woman in the hallway, then to what she had just witnessed in the bedroom. All these thoughts swirled about in her head until she fell asleep.”

Connections are at the heart of the story, even though these connections are not always positive.

“Douglas and Robert were two men who on the surface had absolutely nothing in common. Robert had been raised in a world of poverty and favoritism, while Douglas’s world had been one of wealth and neglect. Both were products of their mothers’ whims. Even though Robert’s ego had been over inflated, and Douglas’s diminished, the pair had turned out similar in so many ways.”

Sometimes playful, sometimes piercing: the forces which draw us together can be one as easily as the other. But overall, the mood of this novel is uplifting and resilient.

Perhaps:

“‘Violet, I give you Rose, and Rose, I give you Violet.’ She motioned playfully in front of the young women.
‘You both have flower’s names. Isn’t that interesting.’ Bernice giggled.”

[As an aside, two flower-named women appear in one of my favourite reads of last year too: Mary-Rose MacColl’s In Falling Snow.]

Or, perhaps:

“As tears continued to stream from their sightless eyes, a part of them wished that they had never insisted on hearing the rest of the story.”

Two Women reminded me of the sense of community in novels like Miriam Toews’ Summer of My Amazing Luck, Mairuth Sarsfield’s No Crystal Stair, Lori Lansens’ The Girls and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.

Readers who appreciate the story-within-a-story framework will be immediately charmed: Two Women looks to the stars, but Christene A. Browne’s story is as much down-to-earth as it is starry-eyed. It is a promising debut indeed.

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