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

Tricia Dower’s Becoming Lin (2016)

Reading Becoming Lin reminded me of discovering Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room and Marge Piercy’s Small Changes. Two unapologetically feminist novels which I felt had poured out of my own heart into some other writer’s story. I inhaled these books, and I felt the same sense of intense recognition and kindred-spirit-ness in Tricia Dower’s newest novel.

Caitlin Press, 2016

Caitlin Press, 2016

Lin’s story is not self-absorbed. In fact, she is deliberately reaching beyond her own experience, particularly in her efforts to support the pacifists fighting the Vietnam/American War and activists demanding accountability to the American electorate. She is actively stretching.

But nonetheless, it is a self-centred story, in the sense that Lin is overtly and passionately engaged in the struggle to discover and root herself. She is, as the title declares unabashedly, in the act of becoming, Becoming Lin.

“Everyone was always becoming and unbecoming,” declares Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.  And perhaps this is true, if one were to delve more deeply into the secondary characters’ experiences, but in Lin’s experience of her family, most people have become already; they have remained static since the act was complete.

When she looks to her mother, in particular, she finds no openness to change, and she struggles to locate it in herself as well. She recognizes a tendency towards a stagnancy, a fearful disengagement. “That would be me: stringent, orderly, rigid & obsessive. Thank you, Betty Wise.” She knows she will have a lot of work to overcome that inherited confinement.

This is an excerpt from her journal, entries from which appear at regular intervals throughout the narrative (consistently in italics). Even though I found the narrative more engaging reading, the journal excerpts in my copy were frequently flagged because they immediately rang true for me, recalled similar passages in my own diaries two or three decades following Lin’s entries, successfully encapsulated trends and shifts in her experiences with details and scenes.

“THURS DEC 8/66
One foot tucked under me, listening to the radiator hiss, sipping tea made w/dried mint from Grace’s garden. Still light enough to see snow falling from trees in soft wet clumps outside my office window. Supposed to be reading Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas for Interim. Got sidetracked by Room of One’s Own. It’s making me aspire to more than I should.”

Her diaries offer a concrete record of Lin’s experience of her early married life, which serves as a complement to the scenes of those days which Lin now recalls, with varying emotions. Having recently made the decision to separate from her husband, establishing a separate household with their young son, she is actively reflecting and reconsidering.

“A year ago Lin took a workshop based on Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy that introduced her to the idea that roles and scripts can rule your life. It transformed the way she saw herself.”

She’s feeling understandably disoriented.

“On the way home, Artie says, “You’re opening yourself to higher, nobler possibilities, to something larger than yourself.”
Is she? Feels more like she’s dangling her feet over the edge of her life.”

And her efforts to educate herself often reveal more uncertainties, more questions with pending answers, than resolutions.

“TUES MAR 8/66
I’m the only married student in Psych. He said it’s like losing yourself in a beautiful piece of music.”

Sometimes the sense of inertia is overwhelming. “Most days it’s so quiet she can hear the woods shiver.” Other times, the world seems to be moving too quickly for her to regain her footing. She seeks comfort and support, but finds challenge and discontent in places which she once associated with love and security.

THURS JUNE 29/67
Relived to be back. I don’t fit in Stony River anymore.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is the kind of female friendship which she discovers when she moves beyond the protective circle of her marriage. She begins to see possibilities which never existed for her before. “How do you know which idea of yourself is the true one?”

The language is often matter-of-fact and clean, but occasionally a metaphorical passage gleams. These are particular treats, carefully crafted and resonant.

“Sunlight stretches like smeared butter across the fertile landscape of corn and hay fields peppered with farmhouses, barns, silos, the occasional feedlot, apple orchard and huddle of oaks. If she rolls down her window, the smell of hay might yet change her mind.”

Lin is all about changing her mind. In all the best senses of the phrase. Whether she is driving down a road or sitting still, lost in thought. She is not a character who has gotten under my skin; it’s like she’s always been there.

“She pictures the future as prairie-flat and stretching out forever. They have only to keep going forward to find it and the selves they are becoming.”

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