Massacre, killer, murder: when these words appear on a novel’s first page, readers are fore-warned.
And, yet, the first third of Sara Taylor’s Boring Girls (2015) is a coming-of-age story.
“It was becoming more and more apparent that I had been right all along. No one could truly understand me, unless they got me.” Despite the ominous introductory pages, Rachel’s experiences in high school are not extraordinary; she is unpopular, artistic, and a target for bullies.
But Boring Girls quickly develops into a coming-of-anger story. Rachel offers a perspective from a later date, and has enough self-awareness to take a step back from her narrative sometimes so that readers can assemble a broader picture, but Boring Girls is all about Rachel’s voice.
This suits the tale, as she also becomes the voice of a heavy metal band, the lead singer, who is known for delivering a memorable show for audiences. “If more people treated assholes like assholes, then anyone could be a hero.”
Rachel wasn’t looking to be a hero, but she does want to prove people “dead wrong” if they think girls can’t be singers, and in time her ambition swerves into the territory occupied by Rachel the renegade, the unbalanced, the criminal, the murderess.
The most disturbing element of Boring Girls is that aspects of Rachel’s spiral are presented as quotidien details. Not exactly boring, but not titillating either. (Yet, it remains, even in talk of art-class and who-dates-whom, compelling.)
The prose is not commercial, the story not a page-turner. The most scenic and crafted aspects of the novel are about the band members’ experiences related to practices and gigs (the bands’ names are wickedly funny), undoubtedly a reflection of the author’s own experiences (as a member of “The Birthday Massacre”).
“None of these questions are really meant to have answers. It’s just the stuff that cycles around in my mind.”
And even after bad things happen, there is no satisfying conclusion. It’s disturbing because it’s believable, most horrors do not have explanations. Not satisfying ones.
There is a massacre in Valerie Mills-Milde’s After Drowning (2016) too, but the novel begins with a single death, which Pen observes while at the beach with her young daughter.
“The drowning has turned over ancient soil, and with it, the bones of Pen’s past. Last night, unable to sleep, she had reimagined the scene over and over.”
Pen has returned to Port in an effort to orient herself, but this disaster strikes soon after her arrival, and larger questions of rescue and struggle, succumbing and surviving come to the surface.
“‘It’s hard to go back to things. Especially if when you saw them last, everything was so messed up.'”
Surrounded by the familiar and the near-familiar, she begins gingerly exploring her roots, but ‘home’ and ‘away’ are slippery states. Parental and sibling relationshps are dislocated, disorienting.
“The cats in Pen’s childhood were like phantoms, half-starved and nameless. Now, Irene’s cats loll around like porn stars and have the names of dead celebrities; Marilyn, Tony, Frank.”
Sometimes changes are dramatic and readily reconizable. (Even then, there is at least a hint of darkness. Marilyn. Patches.)
“’Has it changed, Pen? The lake, Port, I mean?’
She thinks for a moment. ‘I thought so before, but now I’m not so sure. It’s still the same old mix: fishing families, the summer people, a few more restaurants and boutiques. Oh, and bikers. Lots of them.’”
Port bears substantial similarity to the town of Port Dover in Ontario, which has also seen substantial cultural change in recent years. (The massacre is pulled from Southwestern Ontario news headlines as well.)
“There are probably hundreds of bikers in the province, she reasons, and many in Port. Many all along the Erie shoreline. In recent years, each time a Friday the thirteenth occurs, the bikers converge on the town like a flock of black gulls. No reason to assume that T or the others, had been involved in these killings.”
Valerie Mill-Milde’s narrative is as familiar as her small-town setting: a search for identity and a sense of belonging, against a background of rapidly changing times both personal and political. Including excerpts from some reports (insurance documents and newspaper articles) reminds readers that there are other versions of the truth hovering beyond Pen’s story, and that adds a degree of complexity to the flow between past and present-day events.
The author draws attention to some key moments which crystallize in the glare of summer sun reflected off Lake Erie with a quiet sensibility. Her sense of irony and compassion could propel the narrative of her next work into truly sophisticated storytelling.
James Laxer‘s is a bloody tale as well, a historical volume in fact: Staking Claims to a Continent: John A. Macdonald, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and the Making of North America.
This is the second volume in a trilogy which began with Tecumseh and Brock and a consideration of the War of 1812. Not only is he drawn to pivotal events which define nations and continents, but James Laxer has an intuitive understanding of what makes for good reading: conflict fuels narrative.
James Laxer successfully combines a zoom-lens and a satellite-view, so that a variety of readers can participate in his work. Consider the way in which he presents John A. MacDonald’s staked claims to the north. MacDonald is the “Master Builder of Confederation”
“He was, as well, a gifted performer on the hustings during an election campaign. But in the intimate confines of a conference with a number of political leaders thrown together for a period of days, he excelled. Both on the floor and in private encounters when the conference was out of session, he drew others to him, won them over to his vision, and honed the needed compromises on matters of detail that kept the agenda advancing.”
What follows is a summary of one particularly important speech, made in the provincial legislature on February 6, 1865, which enumerated the flaws of American federalism and promoted the idea of British North Americans uniting to take any defensive action required.
Then readers are invited into another layer of the conference, with a discussion of George-Etienne Cartier’s speech on the following day and George Brown’s the day after that. Now readers have a greater understanding of the similarities and differences between allies on the matter of Confederation.
Finally, he shifts into a discussion of the opponents’ perspectives, choosing A.A. Dorion to present in detail. “I can tell those gentlemen that the people of Lower Canada [Quebec] are attached to thir institutions in a manner that defies any attempt to chane them in that way,. They will not change their religious institutions, their laws and their language, for any consideration whatever.”
Perhaps many of the details are lost on contemporary readers who are not currently engaged in the study of Canadian history, but there is an eye to current events throughout the work, so that even this one speech reminds readers that tensions between francophones and anglophones persist yet.
Similarly, the focus on the American figures, approaching and fielding the conflict which came to be called the Civil War, reaches into the past to consider the development of American political parties, growth of industry and resource availability and institutionalized inequality. (Spoiler: the war was about economics not human rights.) This feels surprisingly relevant given some of the issues at the forefront of the current election campaigns in the U.S. and ongoing civil rights’ conflicts.
(There is not much said about Mexico, other than in the context of which territories would eventually be successfully brought into the union, along southern borders. So the “making of North America” in this context is really about the U.S. and Canada.)
James Laxer is not targeting the casual reader. He does use endnotes, not footnores, so that readers are not constantly reminded of the immense effort of scholarship behind the work, but there are two pages of primary sources in his bibliography and more than six pages of secondary sources.
Whereas Charlotte Gray’s works of narrative non-fiction urge readers to lean back in their chairs to get comfortable with some storytelling along the way, Staking Claims to a Continent feels like a book which should be read at a table, with a notebook at hand.
Nonetheless, it is not an academic work either; the language is heightened but accessible, the content dense but not overwhelming, and the structure complex (layered and shifting across borders) but clearly expressed. And, there’s a revolution afoot. Potentially more than one. Who says this doesn’t make good summer reading?
How about you: any bloodshed in your stacks this season?