“Yes, June collects sadness. What would happen if no one remembered sadness? We’d walk around mutilated and mutilating and not know how we got there or have any remorse.”
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Perhaps this is as true of the author, Dionne Brand, as it is of June in Love Enough, for characters in In Another Place, Not Here and What We All Long For seem to embody this quality as well.
Love Enough seems to simultaneously rail against this tendency and honour it. It is a mass of contradictions (as is love, itself): beautifully and hauntingly expressed.
Throughout the narrative, many characters come up against uncomfortable truths. They have believed something or someone to be true; instead, they have misunderstood.
“If you were to notice every small physical gesture of an individual person and if you observed those small gestures over the course of a year and a half, say, and if you were to lose that person you should be able to find that person. Like tracking the genome sequence, but the genome sequence of gestures. You should be able to find that person. You should.”
You should. You should be able to.
But the implication is that you cannot.
But, why not?
Perhaps we are tracking the wrong trail.
“As we all do, June had expected her own reflection in the lover’s face. Her reflection being a benign understanding. But the lover’s face, in the end, was fierce and foreign. It wasn’t the same person. Not someone June knew at all.”
A novel about the nature of love might be sprawling to afford the opportunity to contain all those unanswerable questions, but Dionne Brand is a poet. One expects precision of language and Love Enough exhibits this. A single sentence, for all its simplicity, may have been laboured on for hours. (Another contradiction.)
“The woman loves being loved, more than she loves. That the man loves her is more compelling than whether she loves him. But sometimes, as now, she is overwhelmed by this love and breaks off to the lake or to the red underwings of a black bird.”
Some of the statements seem also mythic in their universality. And the philosophical link between love and freedom (strikingly illustrated on the cover), connection and disconnection, is explored in layers. “To be lost or to be free.”
“They weren’t old men really, his father and his uncle, but they seemed old because of how their life was. It was all in the past tense. And when they told him what he should do, he felt as it they were welcoming him to some petrified life. So he had separated himself from them, separated himself from the grim warmth around the counter at Bilan. He felt left.”
With such exacting prose, it’s ironic that chaos lurks beneath. Disorder. Happiness?
“And people with ordered lives always think that people whose lives are in disorder are looking for their kind of order. They think their kind of order is happiness, when their kind of order is gluttony and selfishness. And with all this order, June thinks, we are creating wreckage and disorder, piling it up like a midden.”
There lies a midden of emotions.
“Then is when she decided that you had to keep the noise of other people out of you. This is when she knew the only recourse was to watch and wait. Wait, because you can’t change people, you can only change yourself.”
With those you love, you must disconnect. And yet there is cost not only with the unfiltered noise of love, but also with the protective layer of silence.
“He’s disappeared into the elements of mayhem and randomness. They are indeed elements, June thinks, like iron or mercury. Of course June knows she’s being a little precious. She laughs at herself out loud. Right now she is probably an odd-looking woman in the coffee shop. She looks around and laughs again. Everybody in the coffee shop is odd-looking except those who have someone sitting across from them talking. Companionship makes you look sane.”
Is it even about love? Perhaps, something else? Perhaps survival.
“You have to survive people. You meet people and sometimes you have no control of that, and then it’s a simple matter of waiting them out.”
Sometimes the shortest sentences contain the greatest amount of confusion: “(No one thinks they’ve been loved enough.)”
What one character muses is true, too, of a novel like Love Enough. “It is hard if you really want to do it right.”
It’s very difficult to produce a tightly honed novel on a subject which suggests that any book considering the matter should be the length of Anna Karenina or Kristin Lavransdatter.
Dionne Brand makes it look easy.
No matter how dilgent one has been with one’s read-o-lutions, February is not the shortest month but the longest test.
If it had a chapter heading? In which all your good bookish intentions will flake away like paper splinters from the spine of a well-loved paperback.
And, yet, my February reading, one week in, remains in concert with my 2015 read-o-lutions. Part of that is due to the fact that I am still reading some of the same books. (Is that a good thing?)
Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (1979) and The Diaries of Dawn Powell settled into the stack on the first day of January. Just five or ten pages of Lewis Hyde’s book gives a reader something to chew on.
“In the beginning we have no choice but to accept what has come to us, hoping that the cinders some forest spirit saw fit to bestow may turn to gold when we have carried them back to the hearth.”
Under discussion is the source of the creative spirit, which inspires the artist to make the work and offer it to an audience, to keep the gift in motion. This fits with a more general discussion of what it mean to bestow a gift which was discussed in detail in the book’s first half, relying upon a variety of sources, from anthropological studies and fairy tales.
In The Gift‘s second half, Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman move to centre stage (but many other voices – Coleridge, Pinter, Sarton, Conrad,Angelou, Kundera – fill out the chorus). Readers settle into complex questions, like the consequences of the commercialization of art (in the context of which television shows should be in the time-slots opposite “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days”).
Talk of Nielsen ratings in terms of allowing commodity art to “define and control our gifts” and exhaust the creative spirit is surprisingly relevant in an age where writers are forced to balance the need to “produce content” or “create art”.
The Gift is not light reading; Lewis Hyde’s classic has a chunk of pages devoted to bibliography, index and notes and the need to reread passages is pressing. And, yet, the book has less of a lecture-hall feel to it, more of a brandy-snifter-after-dinner-fireside-scene feel to it.
It landed on my TBR some years ago because Margaret Atwood recommended it (her Payback would make a terrific reading companion) and it is certainly a worthwhile read. Deep in Whitman territory, in the second-last chapter, there’s little question of my finishing, also little question that it would bear rereading immediately.
Every book in the rest of the stack is somehow related to a read-o-lution. Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna and Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero are there because I loved other books by them (The House of the Spirits and The Cat’s Table) but haven’t made time for many of their others (why not?).
Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True was a gift from a friend (soo many years ago that it’s hard to argue that I’m a good friend). It’s also probably the longest novel I’ll read this year. Not since Kristin Lavransdatter have I felt that a bookmark parked at 200 pages seemed like a lame effort on my part.
Infinite Riches is a Virago read (but I’m better at collecting them than reading them) and the short story collection in my stack. Next week there will be talk of five contemporary collections I’ve read recently, but I’m in the mood for some classic stories these days.
Where Nests the Water Hen is part of my Gabrielle Roy project (but I’ve only read The Tim Flute so far). It’s one of those books that’s been in the mix for months, slipping in and out of the current stack. Part One is the perfect length to read in a single sitting, whereas the novel’s second part comprises the bulk of the volume (followed by a shorter third part), so I keep reading the first part, setting it aside and then losing track of the story and beginning again. But that happens to you too, sometimes, right? I know that I must read beyond the first part in a single sitting, even just a single page.
M.C.Higgins the Great is one of my 20-something books; it’s been on my shelves, neglected, for more than 20 years. Since then, I’ve read some other books by Virginia Hamilton but I’m fine with having waited so long to meet M.C. because his story, of a mountain in the process of being levelled to satisfy corporate interests, feels just as timely today as it would have done when the book first landed on my shelves.
Toni Morrison is one of my MRE authors but The Bluest Eye is one that I’ve read before, so it appears in the stack as part of my desire to reread favourites this year. (Swann was the first.)
And Amphibian was bought new, but then I read a few hundred other books instead (why do I do this?). Phin is a terrific character and the tone of the story reminds of my Susin Nielsen’s writing (especially The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, for Phin, too, is seeing a doctor).
What is in your stack these days? How is your reading year so far?
Sarah Ellis’ Outside In is her seventeenth novel for young readers, and readers who discover her through this unusual work will undoubtedly be keen to investigate her backlist.
Groundwood Books, 2014
The cover captures the hint of mystery which lurks beneath the story, for Lynn encounters Blossom and immediately questions present themselves.
“Either this extremely ordinary-looking person in a school uniform was a nutbar, or the world had become like one of those fantasy trilogies that Shakti liked to read and which were Lynn’s least favourite books. Maybe this person was a glurb and she had an amulet that had to be restored to the true Druid princess or some such, and wouldn’t it just be Lynn’s luck if it turns out by some horrible cosmic joke that the world was really like that. She would have to go and lie down in the tundra somewhere and just give up.”
There are some humourous touches like that, too, as Lynn tries to make sense of what she is seeing. And, along the way, some social commentary. How does one define real in a world which is dominated by the virtual?
“Did Blossom and her family really exist? Lynn experienced a wave of doubt as she glanced around before running her key across the metal screen at the edge of the reservoir. No Phone. No email. No street address. Did Blossom even have a last name? For Pete’s sake, it would be easier to confirm that Celia’s guinea pigs, stars of their own YouTube movies, existed.”
Blossom doesn’t leave a trail behind her which is easy for Lynn to spot and contemporary readers will face the same challenges following her breadcrumbs. Is she a fantastic creature of sorts? Or does she just live her life in a way which seems fantastic to onlookers living in a mainstream existence complete with pets on YouTube?
“We reorder things. We collect recycling and take it back to where it is useful. We pull up weeds and put them in the compost where they turn into dirt to grow more things. And something we just fancy things up.”
These are not fantastic concepts to be sure. But there is some complex thinking behind these everyday save-the-Earth aspects of the story.
““The game’s not worth the candle.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s from card games from long ago. The chances of winning are not worth the cost of burning a candle to light the game.”
And along the way, a number of valuable issues are raised. Out of context, these quotes could suggest that the book is preachy, but that’s not the case.
“But there are so many things in the world already. Did you know that there is a billion square feet of self-storage in America? That’s a billion square feet of stuff that nobody is using. There are already enough things without making new ones. We can just use what we’ve got. Fix it and use it. All this racing around earning and shopping and saving. It’s all just dancing for doughnuts.”
There is perhaps an overly-wholesome feel to some of the story’s language (‘nutbar’ and ‘for Pete’s sake’ hearken to the 1950s kids’ books I grew up reading) but the talk of candles and games is embedded solidly in story. Outside In fits perfectly within this Friday Fugue: A Fainter Footprint. And as an introduction to this critically acclaimed author’s works, it is an impressive ambassador.
Other Posts in this Friday Fugue: Clotilde Dusoulier’s The French Market Cookbook (2013); Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg: 200 Inspired Vegetable Recipes (2013); Mark Bittman’s VB6 (2013); Miriam Sorrell’s Mouthwatering Vegan (2013); Two books on carbon footprint in your kitchen.
As much as these stories focus on solitary characters who observe, from the margins, they long for something else; Walt and Mr. Jones are ultimately preoccupied with relationships.
Goose Lane Editions, 2014
Margaret Sweatman’s Mr. Jones openly confronts duplicity.
“His life had been contrary, a series of duplications: two homes; a father who’d dominated and also abandoned him; heroic war service that was also the shame of his nation. He had no words for himself. He felt like an empty room without light, but for the borrowed light from his friends and the radiance of their ideals.”
“It took Emmett three days to fall asleep. All in one blow: Suzanne McCallum’s shoulders, John Norfield’s clavicle. Falling in love, loyal forever to that one glimpse of purity you see in somebody, that kind of love, he thought, is a question of instinct, a move you make before thinking, and it changes everything in a split second.”
But although Mr.Jones is about espionage, it’s set in the Cold War; the action can be sudden and dramatic, but it is couched in the solidity of everyday life, given time to reflect upon what is contained in a series of sleepless nights or a fleeting glimpse.
How to spot things changing in a single instant and what things to keep secret: these things can be learned. One can also learn how to see, how to look, how to be seen, and how not to be seen.
“‘And was anyone there? Besides me?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know how to look for those things.’
Suzanne didn’t really know either. But she would learn. Looking had become her domain. She had nowhere else to live.”
Just as Suzanne is searching, the setting is of little consequence in this novel, for the action is more often interior, the exterior providing a shell in which secrets can simmer.
“’You and I, we have a bond,’ Kimura said. ‘A friendship. Our origins are in secrecy.’”
This is not a Robert Ludlum thriller, but a slow-burning story. Readers feel the characters’ desire to connect through prose which leaves them on the margins; we read about love and passion, heightened conflict, but we feel isolated, solitary observers holding a bound tale in our hands.
“Sunlight struck their complicated faces, revealed them in their aloneness.”
But although alone, this is not an entirey painful state; the novel presents a meditative study of life as solitary refinement, rather than an overwhelmingly sad tale of marginal existence.
“Time was created to ease our pain. The cormorant suddenly opens and spreads its slate black wings, and lake water sprays like shattered crystals in the sun. Here is perfection.”
House of Anansi, 2014
Unlike Margaret Sweatman’s quiet, measured style, Russell Wangersky grabs readers by the scruff and yanks them into Walt’s character, somehow transforming the character-soaked novel into a page-turner.
Despite a stylistic contrast, however, Walt is as much of a solitary figure as Margaret Sweatman’s characters, and the duplicity in this novel feels more deliberate.
“I swear I’m not going to become one of those people who goes around talking to myself, dazzling my own constantly appreciative audience of one. I may do strange things, but I do them deliberately.”
The details really do matter to Walt; he is very attentive to detail and a skilled observer. He has learned to look in a way which some of the characters in Mr.Jones might envy. But, ironically, readers learn as much about Walt from his acts of observation as we learn about his subjects.
“Her name is Elizabeth, and she has a particular way of talking to you, every word distinct and placed down sharply with a click like Scrabble tiles, her hair piled up grey and precise, and she always looks at your chest, high up toward your shoulder and slightly off to one side, the left side, as if she’d been told that this was exactly the spot where your heart was, and if she looked at it hard enough, she’d be able to divine your true intentions right through the wall of your chest, right inside that lub-dubbing lump of muscle in there. Eyes staring straight through flesh and bone and muscle. Or something like that.”
For instance, the description of Elizabeth is revealing, but primarily for what his degree of attentiveness — and the details he values enough to share — relays to us.
But it is not always about the details we can see which matter, but the details which might go unseen. Walt’s awareness includes his observations of his own behaviour, but that doesn’t mean that question readers might have will be answered.
“There’s a spot, right near one end, where someone smacked a beer bottle down hard enough on the wood to leave a little half-circle of dents. That probably would have been me.”
The violence in these two novels simmers beneath the surface of their narratives (more often than not). Often times, readers are left to intuit the significance of marks are left behind on various surfaces. In this matter, perspective is key.
“There’s a little shift that happens, and it happens all the time, in all kinds of circumstances. Like your eyes suddenly are working a different way, and you size everything up differently.”
How Walt sizes things up is directly related to how readers will size them up. “It’s smart to be as honest as you can — the best lies are packed full of truth.” Walt is packed full of truth.
Readers might use one of Walt’s observations to describe the pacing of the novel: “Momentum is powerful and cruel, and there’s not one single thing that can change it.” There is a sense of inevitability to the story as readers turn the pages.
There is some grimacing, some lip-curling: these are not comfortable places to inhabit. But once readers have begun to “watch” with Walt, it is hard to look away.
“You get addicted to the things you do really well. That’s just the way it is. Addicted to the things that have become second nature. Addicted to doing them in the same order, addicted to doing them right, especially if it just happens that you can do them easily, too.”
What contributes to the sense of being unsettled, however, are the relationships, fractured and broken, which litter these narratives.
Mr.Jones and Walt leave readers feeling simultaneously too-much-alone and too-much-in-company. It’s not entirely pleasant. But the skill in Margaret Sweatman’s and Russell Wangersky’s novels is remarkable.
With chapters named for the days of the week in Street Angel and with specific dates in a given week in Adult Onset, these two novels seem to make ideal reading companions.
Ultimately, much of literary fiction is preoccupied with time. Whether it is Molly Bloom’s day in James Joyce’s classic Ulysses or the week of contemporary romance in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Landline, the stuff of characters’ minutes and years is what keeps readers turning the pages even as it assists authors in organizing and presenting their stories.
Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2014
Street Angel is part of Wilfrid Laurier’s Life Writing series, as is Magie Dominic’s work of non-fiction, The Queen of Peace Room, which chronicles an eight-day retreat spent with Catholic nuns, their days ordered by prayers and rituals.
This slim novel moves readers through time like a kaleidoscope, through the days of the week and through the years.
“From the very beginning of time to now, in the back seat of my father’s car, it took 600 million years for Newfoundland to rise from the ocean floor. How did I get from the beginning of time to my father’s Chevrolet with the chains on the bumper? Count it!”
Magie Dominic’s works are somewhat like bookends, nearly a pair but each holding up its own end of stacked memories. Both are narratives characterized by a meditative tone coupled with a reliance upon evocative details to create mood and scene. But Street Angel perfectly captures entire decades in a handful of sentences.
“It’s 1957, 1958. Paul Anka and Ricky Nelson are on the radio. Pat Boone and “Love Letters in the Sand.” “Wake Up Little Susie.” The Asian flu is in China, Russia launches Sputnik, and Humphrey Bogart dies in Hollywood. Father Knows Best. The Blob. The Fly. The Thing That Couldn’t Die. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The Three Faces of Eve—Joanne Woodward goes completely berserk because she’s three people at once and loses her mind with a venetian blind in her hand. I will never forget The Three Faces of Eve, and I will never feel safe around a venetian blind for the rest of my life.”
It is so satisfying at the sentence level that readers, particularly those with a penchant for coming-of-age stories (coming-to-understanding-an-earlier-age, might be more accurate for The Queen of Peace Room), might find themselves flagging passages on every page (perhaps I should say every minute).
“Newfoundland is triangular, with unpredictable winters and sometimes violent winds. The west coast is an extension of North America. The east coast was once part of Africa. The continents collided, lava gushed forth, and Newfoundland was created—and with it a soil combination producing flowers found nowhere else on the face of the earth. The island is covered with mountains 300 million years old. This is exactly where I was born eleven years ago—on a 300-million-year-old triangle.”
While clearly one particular woman’s story, there are many aspects to her experience to which readers will respond as universals.
“There are two things I can’t get enough of: movies and snow. Movies change anything that’s going on in my mind, and snow changes the world around me. Snow transforming the town, icicles as tall as a house, and angel shapes in the snowbanks.”
Much of this story is difficult, however, even painful (which readers of Queen of the Peace Room will expect): “I’m trying to piece every shred of my life back together again—if there ever was a before.”
But ultimately it is a narrative infused with hope:
“I still have my slightly pigeon-toed feet and a tragic look on my face, and I still don’t know how to have a real conversation. It’s all followed me for all fifteen years of my life. But it doesn’t matter on the top of this hill, with its dark trees and sky, mountains folded around it like a body in sleep. The Beothuk walked here before me—there’s no doubt in my mind about that. And they probably prayed in thanksgiving for the sacred view. Smoked from their long wooden pipes. Chanted in gratitude.”
There is a quiet humour to the narrative voice, which makes Street Angel a true pleasure to read. Which is no small feat because knitting together a shredded life must involve a few dropped stitches and some painful reworking of old patterns.
This excerpt from the narrative sums up Street Angel beautifully: “It’s a cup of hot tea and something homemade at the end of the day. And it’s everything in between.”
That “in between” is sometimes hard to swallow but the taste the meal leaves on your tongue is the sort which makes you want to invite all your friends to share a second helping.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Magie Dominic’s Street Angel brought Ann-Marie MacDonald’s debut novel, Fall on My Knees, to mind many times: a Maritime setting, a glimpse of Lebanese culture, a troubled mother, a daughter who challenged a traditional set of expectations, Catholic upbringing, and painful childhood events which haunt adult life.
Adult Onset brushes against many of these themes as well, but with a starkly different setting (downtown Toronto, in the Annex) and a focus on older female characters.
It feels distinct from the author’s two other novels, and yet, as she states in an interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, this new novel could be viewed as part of a trio which deals with a progression of issues which present themselves in a series of life stages, so that readers might also expect to meet Mary Rose (or MR, “Mister”) as an extension of the experiences of younger female characters, like Madeleine and Frances.
Charismatic female narrators dominate Ann-Marie MacDonald’s fiction, and Mary Rose is no exception. Readers are in the grip of her perspective from the novel’s opening lines. And wholly and completely in her head as she navigates an ordinary day as wife and mother and children’s book writer, as she navigates an ordinary moment of trying to reply to an email from her father.
This should be a simple task but, in fact, it occupies her for a considerable amount of time, as she sorts through the layers of meaning and echoes of past experiences related to a few typed lines of text. The narrative vascillates between present and past, the drama primarily interior but surprisingly engaging.
Like Street Angel, this story has some very painful aspects. Mary Rose has suffered physical and emotional pain, a difficult medical condition and a difficult coming-of-age. (I wish that the young narrators could have been friends; I think they would have had much to discuss.)
“Rising, she felt the familiar capsule break in the pit of her stomach and the dark elixir seep into her bloodstream. Guilt. But why? Her Catholic upbringing had left her prone to attacks of it like recurring bouts of malaria in old soldiers. Maybe she’d been born with a low guilt threshold, the way people are born with green eyes or black hair. Or bone cysts.”
The link between guilt and sexuality is explored via the connection between emotional and physical pain in Mary Rose’s past (which seems to be ever-present).
“Sins you committed with your hand by touching yourself ‘down there.’ The constant pain in her arm was not only a punishment, it was a beacon of her badness. Throbbing red light of badness, its pulsations occupied the same frequency as sexual excitement. Best keep that sort of pain to oneself.”
Adult Onset slips between time easily, which is suprising in a work which appears so tightly delineated as to have each segment named for a sequential day in a single week of the narrator’s experience. This works primarily because readers are so thoroughly immersed in Mary Rose’s consciousness; because we are not obligated to pretend a degree of objectivity, we float between times easily, stumbling across the scars as she does.
“But when she looks directly at it, it vanishes. Slips her mind as though somewhere in her brain there is a sheer strip that interrupts the flow of neural goods and services. Like a scar.”
One particularly satisfying element of the novel is the sense of the story’s own physicality, largely through the use of metaphors surrounding physical injury; these paradoxically draw greater attention to the accompanying emotional damage which has been done. For instance, Mary Rose sits “immobilized as the air changed around them, thickened like a welt”. (I wish there had been more of this, to contribute to a sense of layered narrative.)
However, the standout element of Adult Onset is the storytelling rather than the crafting; Mary Rose’s character is credible (not always likeable, but all-the-more credible for that) and readers are compelled to explore her tale.
“Grafts leave scars on the skin, yes, but on bone too. Scars make you stronger, and they help tell a story; like striations in igneous rock, a story of eruptions and epochal inches. Her scars can take her home. Down to the bone, into the marrow, down among the stem cells where the stories germinate.”
Although I was preoccupied by the synergy between these tales (the organizational motif, the themes, the emphasis on the female experience, the sense of physicality, the vibrant settings, the charisma). the two novels are as different in as many ways as they are similar.
What resounds in both stories, however, is the idea of narrator as witness. Whether Street Angel‘s poignant macro/micro scene-setting (“The sixties happened in a matter of minutes. I know, because I was the one counting it.”) or Mary Rose’s overt comments on storytelling (“Pinhole aperture, like an old-fashioned camera. All she can do is try to bear witness. Writer, write thyself … “) these works chronicle women’s lives.
Across the minutes, across the years: whether you are #ReadingWomen or simply reading women, at least one of these novels will strike your reading fancy. (For what it’s worth, Street Angel is on my list of favouite reads for 2014.)
As a fan of Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories, I was wriggling in my seat over the mere idea of Girl Runner. But then the anxiety crept in: there would be no Juliet, and perhaps much of the magic was hers. Just as the same river can’t be stepped in twice, an author cannot retell a favourite story.
House of Anansi, 2014
And then Girl Runner was shortlisted for the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, a nod which increased my excitement and my anxiety.
The other volumes nominated for that particular award are certainly accomplished. Andre Alexis’ Pastoral is incisive and exacting. K.D. Miller’s All Saints exhibits a delicate balance throughout the linked collection of stories, which is difficult to sustain (this was true, too, of The Juliet Stories). The layered storytelling in Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist is simply exquisite. And Miriam Toews’ novels are characterized by strong and engaging women’s voices with Yoli’s exceptionally striking because it deliberates upon a woman’s desire to take her own life in All My Puny Sorrows (this claimed the prize).
Girl Runner offers, however, a winning combination of story and character. Not only the grit and sweat of sport and the pursuit of perfection as in Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage or Elizabeth Ruth’s Matadora. Nor the cool rhythmic slip between historical and contemporary times so often evident in Jane Urquhart’s fiction. Not just the total immersion in a female voice which might not be entirely reliable, as with Catherine Bush’s Accusation or Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nor the kaleidoscopic view of life from near-beginning to near-end like Christina Schwarz’s The Edge of the Earth or Hilary Scharper’s Perdita. But something of all of these.
Thematically, the idea of getting acquainted with Aganetha Smart via memories from her life, which spanned the better part of the twentieth century, immediately appealed.
Stylistically, the transitions between the past and present narratives chronicling Aganetha’s experiences are handled brilliantly.
Sometimes they are seamless, the rush between times mirroring that moment when a runner truly hits her stride, that sense of simultaneous weightlessness and solidity, as each step propels. And sometimes they are abrupt, like the rush of stopping, the breathlessness of shifting into a different state.
So at the end of one segment, Aganetha recalls an earlier run, euphoric and empowered. “I know I can’t be spent.”
And, then, the next segment begins: “We’ve come to the blue car: nondescript, wouldn’t stand out in police alerts. The young man, Max, is opening a rear door, and the girl wheels my chair nearer. I say, Are we going somewhere?”
This is tremendously satisfying, and the prose is carefully constructed to more generally echo Aganetha’s state of being as well.
In her youth, she speaks directly, pointedly. She is emboldened.
In her later years, she moves as others wish her to move. And although she speaks with the same directness, she no longer possesses the same sense of agency, and this is reflected not only in the nuts-and-bolts breakdown of individual scenes, but in a slightly-meandery and more distanced tone. Aganetha is no longer on the track; she is sitting on the sidelines.
But if readers were expecting a quiet, reflective read, they have forgotten that Aganetha is still a runner at heart.
For all the calm that exists when a runner reaches her stride, her heart is pumping and her feet are pounding. Very near the beginning of Girl Runner, readers are informed that this is no dreamy slice-of-life story but one with a plot, a mystery.
Here it is: the signal that the race is underway.
“Lies. Let me count the ways.
There is the lie of omission, the lie of avoidance, the lie outright, the boast, the tiny indulgence or fudging, the sly miscalculation, the rounding up or down, there is flattery, and the little white lie, and there is the bold sweep, the lie of epic proportions with a million smaller lies to underpin it, there are the muddling lies that confuse or confound, the lie of distraction, the lie that knows it will be caught out, the cold-blooded lie and the quick-witted lie and the lie made in terror and haste, the lie that must lie and lie again to cover its tracks, and, of course, there is the lie that fools even the liar, who knows not what he or she propagates.
That last one is the most dangerous of all, for it can trick almost everyone. It can come to look like the truth.
And so I think of another lie. The lie of my own choosing, that lives with me yet, and without me. The lie that protects. That shelters. That builds its fragile hiding place of love.”
Fragility and protection, strength and duplicity, true-self and under-self: Girl Runner does not detour around contradictions.
“There is absence, and there is vanishing, and these are not the same thing at all.”
Maybe these are the sort of imaginings which float in the author’s mind when she is running, when she is creating the space in which the ideas will emerge, caught between cascades of motion and moments of stillness. (She describes her writing process in this piece for CBC Canada Writes.)
“The appearance of perfection does not interest me. It is the illumination of near-disaster beside which we all teeter, at all times, that interests me. It is laughing in the face of what might have been, and what is not.” (It might sound as though this is lifted from the article cited in the paragraph above, but all of these quotes are from the novel.)
This teetering is at the heart of Girl Runner and adds substantial heft to the narrative. Aganetha is a fully credible and expansive character because even when she is still, she is in motion. She is still reevalating, examining, considering, deliberating. She is active, even when she appears confined. She is still running her race.
““I think I would run even if I knew I would never win another race again. It’s weird. I can’t explain it. It’s like something I can’t turn off.'”
Here’s hoping that Carrie Snyder feels the same way — about running, perhaps, but most definitely about storytelling. I don’t want her to turn it off. I’m adding her to my list of MRE authors.
Crimes of the past lurk beneath the stories in Ian Weir’s Will Starling and Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment and the main characters lurch towards and stumble into confrontations and altercations with life-long repercussions.
Goose Lane Editions, 2014
These are both dark tales, but Ian Weir’s novel is literally and figuratively so: “And every step I had taken since had been nothing but one step deeper into Night.” His descriptions are shaded and designed to make readers uneasy.
“Imagine a room constructed especially for Old Bones, according to his own meticulous specifications, and where – of all the rooms in the world – he should be most completely at his ease. A long low cellar with a square lantern hanging from a central beam, and sunlight cringing in through narrow windows, set high up, at ground level. Sunlight itself is sullied here, and lingers wretched and reeking. There are specimens along one wall, and a fireplace opposite with a pot for boiling the bones – a great copper cauldron, such as trolls might gather round at some unspeakable feast – although these are not the elements you notice first. First you are assailed by the stench, which is staggering, even by London standards.”
Despite the unpleasant nature of his tale, our guide in Will Starling is asking readers to trust him. (I cannot resist quoting at length from the novel because the the atmosphere is deliciously unsettling and the voice outstandingly drawn and sustained.)
“But I ask you now to trust me – or rather, I ask you again. I have researched these events, drawing wherever possible upon eye-witness reports. I have ferreted out such Facts as may be found, for that’s how you must begin, as any Man of Science knows – marshalling your Facts and then constructing upon them a scaffolding of Theory. Assembling it with exquisite care, timber by timber, joist by joist, until you have an edifice that will stand – and thus you have Truth, or as close to Truth as we may glimpse through the boiling fog of this world. “
But is he trustworthy? His preoccupation with Truth is laudable, but another tale-teller might say something else. Indeed, does.
“His name is Starling. He is described as a youth of diminutive stature, a known thief and blackguard who scavenged the battlefields of Europe during the late war against Corporal Bonaparte. Latterly he has served to assist a surgeon in Cripplegate, in the course of which occupation he has had cause closely to collaborate with the unholy gentlemen of the Resurrection Trade.”
Yet Starling is not the only potentially-disreputable character.
“It appeared he gravitated as well to a loose confederation of housebreakers and head-breakers – cracksmen and rampsmen, in the parlance of the trade – amongst whom he continued to find considerable scope for his old pig-sticking skills.”
Surely our “Wery Umble” is better than a pig-sticker for a narrator.
But even he admits that circumstances can change a man.
“And, looking back, I scarcely know that boy – the Will Starling who left the ale-house and set off alone towards Islington, with all the deadly resolve of Titus Ratsbane himself. I can watch him in my mind; I look down on him in fearful wonderment.”
Looking down on him, watching in his mind, Starling recreates the scenes in a lively tone.
“And there I’ve done it, haven’t I? Your Wery Umble has performed wonders of his own, entering the heart of another man and intuiting his innermost thoughts and secrets – down to the hunger he was feeling, and the conversation he had shared with his late sister three years before I was born.”
The sensory detail is rich as the description of the Old Bones room reveals. But the narrative does not require patience, for there is conflict embedded in the story and evident even in light touches throughout.
“Janet’s house leaned forwards, its second storey looming partway across the narrow lane, as if intending belligerence to the house on the other side. The opposing structure leaned towards it with equivalent intent, and thus the two of them faced one another like two muskoxen bent on settling the issue of dominance over the herd.”
But though told with a light touch, Will Starling remains a dark story. “This is where the tale grows wild. We will need dark nights and thunderstorms as we proceed; howling winds, and hearts afire with unspeakable yearnings. But upon my oath and upon my soul: what I am telling you is true.”
Random House Canada, 2014
One might say that hearts are afire with unspeakable yearnings in Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment as well, though the setting is contemporary and the prose is straight-forward and well-lit.
Nonetheless, both tales are preoccupied with the idea of what can happen in a moment (what stems from it immediately and what festers over a lifetime).
Punishment conisiders what happens when you do not hesitate in taking an action.
“I was getting ready to go to bed but I let her in—one of those moments I’ll spend the rest of my life thinking about. One tiny little action—you step aside, hold the door open, she walks in and, you don’t know it yet, but the rest of your life just flew out through that same open door.”
But also what happens when you do hesitate.
“How often have I wielded a baton against a man who believed that by brute force he could gain control of some small aspect of his life or, in extreme cases, an institution by disabling or killing me? The prison system taught me that the margin between life and death is frequently as narrow as a hesitation.”
It raises the question of what happens when you insert yourself into the story.
“From the television came a sudden jarring crash and a flash from somewhere off-screen. The commentary grew more urgent. Coalition forces had landed in the distant desert, were advancing on the silent city. The moment and tomorrow fused. Everything and nothing happening at once. The unseen future now implacable, unthinkable, inevitable.”
And, also, what happens when you step back from the narrative.
“How can absence make a sound, or make a presence felt? On second thought, I feel a lot of absences.”
Ultimately it is a tale which considers how we cope with confrontation. (This is a long quote from a relatively minor character, but it not only reveals the novel’s tone but brushes against some thematic content without spoilers.)
“I’ve been a cop all over this great country. To be honest, this town is probably the biggest place I’ve ever worked. Mostly little rural places, mostly out west. Places no bigger than where you’re living, down the shore. Houses few and far between. One of the first things you learn, when you get to one of those little detachments is that in every case, without exception, you find out that, say, 60 percent of the police work is generated by a handful of individuals, like this Strickland. In many cases there’s one fuckin guy […] lived alone, young, smarter than the average bear, did time, figures the rules are for everybody but him. No respect for the law or the officer. Constantly … I mean constantly finding ways to fuck the system, whether its petty theft, taxes, fishin’ or huntin’ out of season, speeding, dope, bootlegging, sexual perversions. You name it and this guy will be into it. And fearless! Loves nothing better than to provoke an officer into a confrontation. Never anything interesting, just some clawing, tearing, rolling-in-the-mud bullshit to get you all sore and dirty. And next morning you’re serving the cocksucker toast and jam in the lockup and he’s all smiles before he charges you with assault.”
And it examines how we cope in the wake of confrontation.
“The names rolled through my head: Kingston, Joyceville, Millhaven, Collins Bay. Once proud, lovely place names now appropriated by the purpose they’ve obtained. Penitence and punishment. The false promise of redemption.”
Although the novel explores some heavy issues, its tone is more about plotting than philosophizing, as though the novelist listened to his main character’s advice: “Come on, Tony, I said to myself. Enough with the navel gazing.”
With its casual tone and page-turning pace, Punishment is a novel with wide-appeal, one which brushes against darkness without immersing readers in discomfort, whereas Will Starling drags readers into cellars and cells, even rubs their noses in the stench of it all, declaring itself a Wery Umble work of quality glimpsed through that boiling fog.