In her work as a journalist, Sara Wheeler has often inhabited “borderlands of turbulence and uncertainty”, and travelled into dangerous territory.
Readers familiar with Catherine Bush’s earlier novels might recall Arcadia from Rules of Engagement, her fascination with war and violence, and the question that haunts her: “What would you be willing to risk for love?”
Perhaps Sara Wheeler is driven by a related question: What would you be willing to risk for truth?
Each woman negotiates the shifting line between the personal and the political, between individual integrity and overarching values.
And each woman grapples with loss which reverberates well beyond her personal experience of devastation.
“There’s a piece of all this I haven’t told you. Something that makes it all particularly hard,” Sara explains.
“I was once falsely accused of something, something so much smaller than this but. And then she unraveled the story of Colleen Bertucci and the wallet, watching David’s face take in her words. As she spoke, the palm on her chest released itself.”
The ‘but’ there gradually takes shape for readers in the two hundred pages before Sara’s discussion with David. (The deliberate but delicate construction is reflected in the exacting design: from cover image to endpapers, the attention-to-detail is remarkable.)
Sara’s accusation is not a subject that she freely discloses; in fact, she seems to swerve from it even in moments of quiet contemplation. Hence, the burden she has born, maintaining this silence.
Goose Lane, 2013
Because Accusation‘s narrative is rooted in Sara’s experiences, readers don’t doubt her innocence.
She has lived with the wrongful accusation, with having been charged with a crime she did not commit, for years; readers feel this weight upon her.
When, later, she is the observer in a situation in which she was once a participant, readers understand that she cannot deny the impact of this devastating experience, now that she is the one who must determine whether an acquaintance who has been accused of a crime is responsible.
Readers also know, however, that Sara has already disclosed this closely guarded information to someone else, long before she shared it with her lover (of three years).
And, ironically, she has shared the story with the man who is now accused of a crime himself.
This fold in the narrative, the added layer of complexity, the seam where accusations meet, is where the story’s richness resides.
Sara met this man long before, at a party she attended at the invitation of the woman who testified on her behalf years before, as a character witness in Sara’s trial. (Yes, another layer to the fold.)
It is a chance encounter, unexpectedly intense, rooted in complex motivations and an emergency. And, for a variety of reasons, Sara tells this man about the accusation she faced.
(These reasons make sense from Sara’s perspective – and to readers, too, who inhabit her space – but when she has to explain them later to the woman who invited her to the party, things seem less clear. But that, too, is understandable: things are always clear when there is only a single perspective to negotiate.)
Circumstances intersect, and in this night, there is wonder: a peculiarly intimate moment in a service centre and open discussion of intense emotions.
“People, Raymond Renaud said, shifting in the dark, think they remember things that aren’t true. And when they believe something is true, it is hard to make them believe it isn’t.”
There is a startling quality to the sense of authenticity in their exchange, so when Raymond is later accused of abusing the children in the circus he was managing, Sara has more than one reason to examine her response to the news, more than one reason to put her journalistic training to work.
“Doubt: once it enters your mind and body, how difficult it is to get rid of it. If not impossible.”
In the same way that doubt seems to clamor and crowd, the complexity of the narrative in Accusation presses and circles. It is thrilling and tantalizing to recognize the swelling layers of fabrication.
The passages which overtly consider the themes are certainly of interest.
“There were so many different kinds of lying: the conscious expedient lies of social navigation, lies told to protect others and to shield yourself, the elisions, partial seeing, necessary secrets, deeper lies told to spare the self from pain, not to mention the inevitable rearranging of memory and the lies that weren’t really lies at all but alterations believed by those who told them, the problem of getting things wrong and needing to get things/ wrong because the truth was impossible to reach or impossible for the self to contain.”
But perhaps even more fascinating are the more subtle explorations: the way, for instance, that Sara approaches the idea of creating a narrative for publication as a journalist.
Individual elements of the process take on a sharp significance when she has a personal stake in the outcome of her investigation. The subjects she selects to interview in-person, the process of questioning, the shifting dynamics of exchanges with and without the need for linguistic translation, the production of (not-exactly-verbatim) transcripts.
This process highlights the sense that life is an ever-edited version of events only partially understood, constantly modified, inherently unreliable. Everything seems risky, vulnerability is heightened.
When Sara recalls, in memory, her experience of being betrayed by someone who refused to be a character witness for her many years earlier, the anger seems fresh.
“She had the alarming sensation of the whole world tilting sideways.”
And Sara’s world tilts again as events unfold in Accusation. It is all intertwined: “Each loss was particular but pushed up against every other loss.”
As Arcadia learned in Rules of Engagement, the outcome of one intervention necessarily affects the next and choosing to take action always entails a risk in both personal and political realms, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Sara’s story is disturbing, and increasingly more so as the plot develops and her character strains under the weight of complications.
Accusation is a tale of risk told in an assured and accomplished voice: compelling, unsettling, haunting.
Catherine Bush appears at the 34th International Festival of Authors. She attended the event in Woodstock on Wednesday.
She will be one of five authors reading tonight, Saturday October 26 at 8pm, along with Jami Attenberg.
She will read again on Sunday October 27 at 12pm, tomorrow, with three other authors including Mary Novik, in an event hosted by Alissa York.
This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration.
It begins with a short but vividly drawn scene: two lovers alone in a room in Paris in 1917.
Sensorily rich and broadly sketched: the reader is immediately engaged.
Not only by the substance, but by a couple of unexpected phrases therein: questions arise.
Those questions are soon set aside however, for the narrative moves immediately into Iris Hogan’s voice, into the present day.
Iris has sat down on the ground holding a young sugar glider, not obviously injured but close to death. ”You should be with your mother,” Iris says.
Readers pause with her but then, fortunately, a young man passes by and helps Iris to her feet; she is not of an ideal age to be crawling about on footpaths rescuing small creatures.
When she returns home with the sugar glider, a letter awaits, inviting her to a ceremony at Royaumont, sixty years after the war ended, after les dames écossaises de Royaumont cared for soldiers in the abbey there.
And, readers pause once more, follow Iris into memory.
2012; Penguin Canada, 2013
In just a few pages, readers know that In Falling Snow is about love and passion, care-taking and healing, chance encounters and faraway places.
It’s also about the unexpected bits (like what makes that woman feel briefly ashamed of her passion, the way a four-legged furry creature can fly as though it is feathered, and how women – young and old – behave contrary to expectations of them).
Readers feel privileged to know these things about Iris, because some who are much closer to her do not know of her past at Royaumont; she has not spoken of her involvement in the abbey hospital during the Great War.
Actually, she has deliberately concealed this information, partly because it was not universally accepted for women to behave in such an unfeminine manner in those times.
Declaring herself part of the Royaumont effort required a great deal of courage, aligning herself with women who were open supporters of suffrage (although some of the Royaumont women did not support that cause) and women who dared to become doctors.
“When I told Violet that I felt admiration for and even an affinity with these women, she didn’t, as I feared she might, recoil. ‘Who wouldn’t be a boy given a chance?’ she said. ‘That’s the country where all the real living is, after all.’”
Readers do not question Iris’ secrecy about her experiences, because she has already proven herself openly compassionate even when in a weakened state herself; she is received as a trusted narrator from the start, and her authenticity welcomes readers into the novel, despite lingering questions.
The narrative settles into Iris’ story long enough to give a sense of her early experiences in France; at her age, she slips between past and present readily, and the letter provokes more memories than usual.
“Life reaches a point where you no longer wish to dig about in the earth of the past to find what might have made you grow the way you have. Or how you might have been different. There’s no going back at my age.”
But Iris finds herself pulled back to the earth of the past more often than she wishes.
And Grace, too, has a rather fragmented view, even in contemporary times and at a younger age, slipping between the demands of work (she works in obstetrics, which recalls Mary-Rose MacColl’s first book of non-fiction, The Birth Wars) and family, with her own high expectations to meet as well.
It’s 1978, no longer surprising to find a woman like Grace employed as a doctor, but by the time she arrives at Iris’ house later that day, she is tired and edgy, surprised by the invitation to Royaumont that Iris has received.
During the Great War, one did not expect to find hospitals staffed entirely by women, on the margins of the conflict. In the 1970s, one did not expect a female doctor to challenge the authority of a male doctor.
Both Iris and Grace have experiences working within a system which requires carefully negotiating the established male hierarchy; each woman learns that traditionalism can erect barriers (or, at least, cause delays and pose challenges).
Each woman also confronts the vulnerability of children (including teenage brothers) and wrestles with the responsibility of caring for another who is weaker (either naturally, circumstantially or professionally).
In some respects, this is about mothering, but more broadly it is about nurturing, caring for one another as human beings. (There are some poignant scenes in the hospital with global ramifications and urgent contemporary relevance regarding the cost of war and international politics.)
Each woman must consider the question of accountability, balance the question of personal integrity with the broader question of societal expectations and demands, and weigh the risks involved with personal decisions of life-and-death importance.
Each depends upon others – and each other – in ways that they would not have anticipated, and the seams between the narratives serve to boost the readers’ attachment to both women.
“Here was Grace crying about a death for which I was almost sure she couldn’t be held responsible no matter what had happened, cheered by the fact she could chaperone an octogenarian on a trip to France. The poor girl needed an easier life.”
From that initial scene, readers are reminded that war stories are often love stories too. Readers do not have any understanding of that briefly sketched relationship; it could be a longterm passion or a chance encounter. And, in some ways, the nature of it, in that very moment, is of no consequence.
Chance encounters can intensely creative. Fascinating possibilities arise in the presence of the unexpected. Mary-Rose MacColl has written about her accidental discovery of a book about the history of Royaumont, having reversed two digits in a call number at the library, stumbling upon a book which inspired her to write a book of her own.
In its broadest terms, In Falling Snow is about the choices we make: the little everyday ones in the course of our quiet everyday lives, say, to help a small suffering creature when one is out for a walk, and the big ones which are unequivocally life-changing and, just as illustrated there, the simple idea that a small action can have a resounding impact on the life of another, can shift from seemingly fleeting to life-altering.
And, because Iris had other reasons for concealing her experiences at Royaumont, because past decisions reverberate with unexpected intensity in the present-day, it is a novel about forgiveness as well.
The characterization and setting are solid; readers are unwaveringly committed to Iris and Grace, and France in wartime is as vivid as contemporary life in Australia. The author’s research infuses the novel, never burdens it. Stylistically, the work is consistent and readable, with transitions between places and times (and memories) skillfully maneuvered.
There is much to recommend this novel, but what is truly remarkable is the ceaseless echo of relevance; Iris’ story resonates in Grace’s life (in ways that are not fully understood until the novel’s final pages), but the story of these two women resonates with contemporary readers as well.
Mary-Rose MacColl’s novel is not only accessible historical fiction but it is an amazing story, one all-the-more-amazing for being rooted in real courage and compassion, and for its urgent relevance to present-day readers.
Mary-Rose MacColl appears this weekend in Toronto as part of the 34th International Festival of Authors.
She will participate in the “Adventures in Storytelling” Round Table on Saturday October 26 at 11am.
She will be one of five authors reading on Sunday October 27 at 2pm.
This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration.
Will you be attending? Or, perhaps adding this book to your reading list?
One of the reasons for The Shining‘s success is that it was not simply a horror story, but the story of a family struggling to make a go of it, in a situation which becomes horrific.
A hopeful but hesitant mother: “For the first time she let herself believe that this might be exactly what the three of them needed: a season together away from the world, a sort of family honeymoon.”
A determined but unsure father: “As he got behind the truck’s wheel it occurred to him that while he was fascinated by the Overlook, he didn’t much like it. He wasn’t sure it was good for either his wife or his son or himself.”
And then there is Danny, a child caught between knowing and understanding. “’But I don’t understand things!’ Danny burst out. ‘I do but I don’t! People…they feel things and I feel them, but I don’t know what I’m feeling!’”
Danny is at the heart of The Shining (named for the ability that Danny possesses, to feel and know what other people are feeling and knowing), at the core of this family’s experiences wintering in a mountain hotel where his father acts as a caretaker over a single, unforgettable season.
The novel is presented from a variety of perspectives, but Danny is such a memorable character that over the years Stephen King was asked many times what happened to the boy after the events recounted in that 1977 novel.
Scribner – Simon&Schuster, 2013
It was a question that remained unanswered for many years. In revisiting the story to write its sequel, Doctor Sleep, Stephen King also had to return to the other powerful presence in the novel, the Overlook Hotel.
The story that Danny’s father planned to tell, which he was inspired to research while working as a caretaker, is something else entirely, but it bears considerable resemblance to the story that has now been told.
“One hell of a story. A little frantically, he took out his notebook and jotted down another memo to check all of these people out at the library in Denver when the caretaking job was over. Every hotel has its ghost? The Overlook had a whole coven of them.”
Those ghosts literally haunt Danny, as a boy in The Shining and later as an adult, as described in Doctor Sleep. ”What mattered was they were never getting out. He was safe.”
Readers familiar with Danny’s history will understand the nature of his struggle, will suspect that there is no such thing as “safe” for Danny.
Readers just meeting Danny for the first time in Doctor Sleep will quickly sympathize with the age-old struggle of a man haunted by choices that he had hoped to make differently, choices that he now regrets, even if they don’t know the details of his experiences in The Overlook.
There are many parallels between the two novels, some outwardly stated and some subtly demonstrated.
Like his father, Danny struggles with the influence of the Overlook, then as a child, and lingeringly as an older child (recounted through memory) and, also, as an adult. He, too, makes notes.
“Of course, he also thought he would never take a drink, not after seeing what it had done to his father. Sometimes we just get it wrong.”
And he exists for some time “under the influence” as well, often opting for oblivion over emotion. (And, with the barrage of sensation he faces, this is understandable but the outcome is regrettable nonetheless.)
“The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser.”
Like his father at the beginning of The Shining, Danny is looking for a position which will afford him the opportunity to make amends for mistakes he has made in the past. Jack had an experience which forced him to reconsider his relationship with alcohol; when Danny grows up, he finds himself at a crossroads too.
“A queer thought came to him. Once upon a time, his father had probably sat in a room like this, being interviewed for the position of caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. What had he been thinking?”
And, like Jack, Danny struggles to define what is real and what is imagined, what is remembered and what is experienced. “Was that another Overlook memory? Dan thought it was. But why now? Why here?”
But there are many broader parallels in the author’s principles of storytelling as well.
Stephen King roots his horror in the everyday, in relationships, in character. This is true across his body of work, whether the story is about a group of boys in one 1950′s summer, a teenage girl attending her high-school prom, or an overly enthusiastic novel-reader with a cabin. (“The Body”, Carrie, Misery)
The details matter, but they are displayed in such a way that the reader is encouraged to invest in the broad strokes.
A single scene, like a young boy walking home from a baseball game, is designed to capture a swell of universal emotions in a moment or two in that character’s life; Stephen King accomplishes this brilliantly.
In The Shining, readers respond viscerally to the cook, a figure slightly distanced from the narrative and, perhaps because of that distance, a representative of something trustworthy and solid in a environment otherwise menacing and frightful.
In Doctor Sleep, readers have the character of Momo, sketched succinctly with a similar intent: experienced and spry, honorable and strong-hearted. “Momo answered on the second ring. She was eighty-five, and her sleep was as thin as her skin.”
Danny remains at the heart of Doctor Sleep (he *is* Doctor Sleep, but the meaning is not understood when the novel begins).
But there is also another character who possesses the twinned sense of wisdom and vulnerability that Danny possessed in The Shining, another child who recognizes that sometimes “parents needed to be protected”.
This character’s portion of the narrative is as substantial as Danny’s. (I can imagine readers will be asking, some years hence, “What happened to…?” and I already want to know. And, as the novel progresses, other voices become equally vital and important.
Just as Momo’s character is sketched swiftly and powerfully, readers have a number of characters whose perspectives add to the breadth of the story in Doctor Sleep. Connections are drawn hard and fast, and the reader’s engagement is, once again, secured in the basis of relationships.
With more than fifty novels behind him, it’s no surprise that Stephen King can weave a good story with a variety of narrative voices designed to embrace readers as dramatically as they recoil from the horrific elements of the stories he tells.
Doctor Sleep is not only a worthy companion to The Shining, but it even makes it burn a little more brightly.
Stephen King appears tonight at the IFOA Pen Canada Benefit: Double Feature.
Check the schedule here for details.
This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration.
Have you read this novel? Do you plan to?
When the angels invaded the plotline of “Supernatural”, I stopped watching weekly.
I prefer stone rabbits and hedgehogs in my flowerbeds, over white winged statues.
And when a girlfriend told me that the child she lost at full-term is an angel now, I struggled to keep my face expressionless, silently repeating to myself how comforting it could be.
But Amanda Leduc had me, in just a few pages, believing in angels.
There is the power of storytelling. Perhaps it does always begin with The Word.
(I won’t say exactly how she hooked me, but I will say it has something to do with Chickenhead, who is my favourite character. See, another impossible thing. That there is a character named Chickenhead, and that she would endear herself to me so quickly.)
ECW Press, 2013
The Miracles of Ordinary Men begins by introducing readers to Sam. He teaches English. He is growing wings.
Readers adopt his confusion. Even readers who don’t believe in angels. Or Catholicism. Or the Tooth Fairy.
“He’d been Catholic, just as he’d believed in the Tooth Fairy. His mother still said prayers for him. They weren’t helping, obviously.”
Sam doesn’t think that he believes in any of those things, but he cannot deny the wings that are sprouting from his back. (His confusion is expressed in clear, often humourous, observations; Amanda Leduc’s sentences are sleek, leaving room for both doubt and belief.)
What he remains uncertain about is whether these wings are a blessing or a curse.
And this is not surprising, because the novel’s epigraph is via Søren Kierkegaard: “And is it not true in this instance also that one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath?”
What does it mean to be blessed, to be cursed? What does it mean when most people cannot see Sam’s wings, even when he flaps them to catch their attention? What does anything mean? What does it matter, whether things mean anything?
“Lilah crumples her napkin onto the plate and watches it unfold, slowly, like a flower. This is what she’s learned, from years of travelling and searching and needing something else: that there isn’t something else, that some people will forever look at the world and see broken things that they can’t change.”
Lilah is the second voice in the novel, introduced in a chapter numbered ‘X’ which follows Sam’s introductory chapter, ‘Ten’.
Readers are alerted that there is more than one way to approach the same idea – even with something as straightforward as counting.
Readers are also reminded that while one character inhabits a single narrative, there are multiple narratives, each inhabited by their own set of characters living their own realities, asking their own sets of questions.
And, when the next chapter begins, readers also realize that there is countdown of sorts.
Whether what awaits is celebration or devastation remains to be seen. Or, understood. Or, believed.
““It’s a crutch,’ he said. ‘A cushion. People can’t face reality, so they make up stories and cling to belief.’
‘But everyone does that,’ she pointed out. ‘Some people kneel to a cross and some people get mired in quantum physics. In the end, it’s all the same.’
But what is the alternative?
‘”Normal people are mediocre,’ he says. ‘Is that what you want? Is that truly who you want to be?’”
Is there nothing between? Between the cross and the formulae? Between the wings and the concrete?
Are questions like that even valid? Is the contrast imagined, the division flawed?
“How terrifying, that she can be one thing and another all at once.”
And do readers believe Lilah’s observation? When just a hundred pages earlier, she was saying: “Together they were broken; the three of them. So different, and so lost.”
Now readers see that Lilah is, literally, fractured, just when she believes herself whole.
What does this mean? What are we to do with such contradictions?
With the idea of these wings?
“The wing slid through his fingers like water. It was soft, and yet not-soft –the wispy down of each single feather a mask for the ribbed cartilage that lay beneath. [...] Perhaps he could fly now, if he wanted. If he gathered the courage to try. The world both above and below, and people spread beneath him like children, so completely unaware of how their lives could change.”
“For a moment he couldn’t remember why he’d awoken, and then he moved his shoulder and felt it, that sharp spike of pain. Deep breath. He turned his head slowly and saw that the left wing had somehow become tangled in the sheets in the space between the bed and the nightstand. He twisted around and a a muscle in his back popped, then popped again.”
With the idea of contrasting ideas inhabiting the same space.
At one level, Amanda Leduc’s novel is rooted in story, and these questions erupt around the characters of Samuel and Delilah (among others whose names appear to be lifted from Bible stories).
At another level, there is direct posing of – and ruminating over – questions about doubt and faith. What transforms us? What nourishes us?
“’If God is truly in your veins, gentlemen – changing your skin, changing your bones – there won’t be anything left of you when it’s over. Anything else is a toy, by comparison.’ Now he was quiet, sad. His words settled among them like the ash that had begun to drift, steady and slow, from Sam’s own wings. ‘As to the rest – if I were God, the world would make me ill too.’”
Although The Miracles of Ordinary Men is not about declarations or pronouncements, this bit does stand out:
“‘We are here to be pulled out of ourselves. Pulled to God or pulled to other people – it doesn’t matter.’”
You don’t need to believe in angels, only in the power of story. In the power of a storyteller to pull readers out of themselves and into the pages of a novel.
Whether you see holes in the nighttime sky or stars, Amanda Leduc knows how to pull readers close.
Have you read this first novel? Or, do you plan to? Are there angels in your flowerbeds?
Readers familiar with Michael Winter’s fiction will immediately recognize the contrast between stark prose and emotional intensity; in the gap between, the reader resides.
For it’s not as though Henry Hayward does not feel, but it’s as though he has raised a hand to protect himself from the heat of the blaze; the reader is on the other side with him, aware but shielded.
And this is understandable because events in Henry’s past, and particularly recent events, are overwhelming; they require some distance.
One might even accuse him of dwelling on the past, like Gabriel English, who is at the heart of Michael Winter’s first publication, One Last Good Look, and first novel, This All Happened.
“You sure are into remembering,” Gabe is told. And not just because he is constantly reminded. “You just remember for the sake of remembering.”
And, at first, perhaps, Henry does remember for the sake of remembering, too. He is struggling with a break-up (shades here of Gabriel, post-Lydia), and he does not seem able to recover; he literally moves on, removes himself from the situation, as a means of coping.
But Henry does take a step away from the past with this action. Ironically, yet deliberately, his decision to leave is a movement towards greater chaos. He takes work overseas, in Afghanistan: not military work, but rooted in the conflict nonetheless.
Hamish Hamilton – Penguin, 2013
And Minister Without Portfolio is a story of conflict, but not the sort one expects when one hears about a character going to work in Afghanistan, but that which ensues, when Henry returns to a life-more-ordinary.
While there, a countryman observes that Henry is their group’s minister without portfolio.
At the time, the idea of being a man not “committed to anything” but with “a hand in everything” felt as much an honour as a judgement. “They were living a life.”
But just a few chapters later, Henry is caught in a sequence of events which dramatically alters his perspective; he views his nomination as a disparaging act, and he desperately works to shake it off.
Henry carries his experiences of violence and destruction back to Newfoundland, where he lives and re-lives them, in familiar and strange ways.
At first, he was puzzled by his countryman’s observation that a particular section of the landscape in Afghanistan reminded the man of Newfoundland; but Henry, too, begins to notice as many similarities between the lands as differences, experiences trauma even in the safe zones.
“The jeep descended into the green and the humidity rose like a soft moist brush against the face. There were flowers here and an oasis of green that the mind encouraged to creep over the land, to perhaps – in some wild biology – be released across the homeland of the soul. We’re here to assist, Henry thought. He could not articulate the idea, but he felt a compulsion to counter the devastation he had been witnessing on the ground.”
There are only a few chapters in the novel which recount the events of the past which haunt Henry: the smaller and larger tragedies that he returns to (and retreats from) repeatedly.
The bulk of Minister Without Portfolio is preoccupied by the efforts that Henry makes to “counter the devastation”.
This is not clear initially, which recalls another observation that Gabe makes in This All Happened: “A novel should be told by the voice of an authority, yet a voice that is still discovering the meaning of what the story is. There should be wonder.”
Beneath the brightly coloured dust jacket of the novel, is a startlingly orange cover. This is what lies beneath. There is wonder here.
There is also a quote, etched into the bookcover, which readers can trace with their fingertips: “He spoke of Henry as if he were an old shed built with found wood. Which he was. Which we all are.”
[As an aside: what a lovely touch. For those readers who like to strip and redress their books, to discover a clue beneath the surface is pure pleasure.]
And where is the wonder in an old shed build with found wood; that is what Henry is searching for throughout his journey and upon his return.
“History is the constant upheaval of peregrination. Henry’s family hadn’t stayed put for more than a generation.”
He battles his inherent rootlessness and works towards a commitment that is quietly wondrous, literally and metaphorically rebuilding.
“We’re looking forward, Baxter said, to seeing some lights on in this house.
Well, Baxter said, if you need anything we’re across the road, and he pointed out the window as if Henry would not know the direction. He was off then. He crossed the road back to his snug little home that had in it a wife who was at that moment moving from room to room turning on more lights.
Henry made a little sliced deli sandwich and put the lantern with its throaty glow on the table so he would have something to look forward to on his walk home.”
(There is only a hint of it here, but Michael Winter’s dialogue is realistic and solid, simultaneously building character and propelling plot; it makes quotation marks seem excessive.)
The community is sketched with bold strokes; in these brief scenes, Michael Winter invites the reader to settle closer, draw near, in a way that Henry (and not Gabe either) cannot.
They are not uncomplicated regions, but there is a sense of closeness all-the-same. There are, at least, lights to view from the darkness beyond.
“They had to be careful with their swearing and with talk of horny dogs and usurping house ownership for this road out to the lighthouse was a Catholic road with many gravestones dating back to the 1700s, graves that were groomed and clipped out and lilac bushes trimmed back once a year by relatives who now lived in other parts of the word, but the old-timers who still live on the road did not like curse words and they eschewed vulgarity and what was considered vulgar was very mild indeed.”
Henry is a man at arm’s length, a man uncomfortable with his position. And this does make it difficult to get close to his character. But he has no confidante and cannot reach beyond his struggle to the readers in the room.
His hand made a wider arc to find the chain but there was nothing at the end of his hand. He understood his sense of the world was drifting away. He was not in a house now but some larger place, some fathomless atmosphere that was not of any time or location. He hardly felt the floor. He panicked and was losing even his sense of self and then he felt a tickle brush his wrist and he pulled and the light arrived all around him – the room.
This is, as that hidden quote declares, just as we all are. In Afghanistan, in Newfoundland, in the reader’s chair: each of us is requiring assistance, countering devastation, finding wood, building a portfolio, looking for the light in a room.
Have you read Michael Winter’s fiction? Have you read other books on this year’s Giller longlist?
Michael Winter will be appearing at the 34th International Festival of Authors in Toronto.
He is one of five authors reading on Saturday, November 2 at 1pm.
This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration.
“The Son of A Certain Woman. You don’t have to have read Joyce to ‘get’ it. But it’s a touch more fun if you have.”
And that is because it is Wayne Johnston’s “Joyce book”.
Which one might take to mean that it’s about the Joyce family. (Primarily about Percy and his mother, Penelope, but also Medina Joyce, Penelope’s sister-in-law.)
But it’s actually an homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is a retelling of the myth of Odysseus.
In Joyce’s retelling, Molly Bloom is Penelope, but in The Son of a Certain Woman, Penelope is Penelope.
Doubleday – Random House, 2013
For those readers who have not yet made it through Ulysses, this might seem an indication that Wayne Johnston’s version will be more a straightforward retelling.
This might be true, but Penelope really isn’t simply Penelope, and the novel certainly challenges readers in other ways.
In an essay written for Hazlitt, the author describes his process in detail.
“I had to turn Ulysses on its head. And so was born Penelope Joyce—Penelope, in Homer’s Odyssey, is true to her long-absent husband, repelling a succession of suitors until her hero-husband makes his way home. My Penelope would be a lesbian who, while the father of her child, Percy, was away—his name would be Jim Joyce—would carry on affairs as dictated by her heart and her need for a monthly mortgage subsidy.”
For much of his young life, Percy believes that Jim Joyce left his mother without any explanation; she has, in his absence, patiently and determinedly raised her son, while his father was off sailing the open seas.
Percy believes this mythological account of events, unquestioningly, for years. And, when he learns of the creative genesis of this retelling, he declares his own propensity for spinning tales.
“My head was a buzzing, swarming tumult of salacious lies. I foresaw a day when I might myth myself to death.”
Once a victim of tale-spinning, Percy out-spins with his own tales; this is a story of transformation, even setting aside the Joyce-ness of it, but Johnston’s crafting is deliberate.
“The characters of Ulysses would, in my book, morph into each other at my whim, à la Finnegan’s Wake. Penelope would sometimes be Leopold Bloom, sometimes his wife Molly Bloom, sometimes a self-taught intellectual. Her son, the physically flawed Percy Joyce, would be a more down to earth genius than Stephen Dedalus, and he would ‘search’ throughout the book, not for his spiritual father, but for his flesh and blood, beautiful mother, whom he would fall in love with, and try unrelentingly to get into bed.”
This is likely the element of the story which will most trouble readers. The novel’s final scene is provocative, too (inspired by the thirty-page-long account of Molly Bloom’s *ahem*self-pleasuring in Ulysses), but Percy’s attraction to his mother is inescapable and unapologetic.
“It seemed to me, at fourteen, that the only truly beautiful woman I would ever have the faintest hope of sleeping with was my mother. It was as simple as that. I was not goaded by any sort of neurosis or incest fetish to pursue her. She wasn’t just my best bet, she was my only bet.
But I know that it was not for these reasons that I pursued my mother. I pursued her because I was in love with her, body and soul.”
Percy’s hopelessness is rooted in his birthmark, which overtly sets him apart from the other children.
“The facial stain extended from my scalp to within about an inch of my Adam’s apple, which made it look as if every other inch of my torso must be thus discoloured, even though I have no other stains on it except a small one that has my belly button at the centre.”
One of these marks is broadcast, the other surrounds his original connection to Penelope, a literal mark of a join that Percy seeks to intensify despite social taboos and the general intolerance towards his person and his family in the community of St. John’s. But Percy reaches beyond this stain.
“If I couldn’t be, then maybe I could be with that, joined to it, a moving, breathing, panting part of it, even if only once, if only for a matter of minutes or seconds. In my world, in my circumscribed universe, she was the utmost of what I was denied.”
Percy is desperate for intimacy, desperate to act on his attraction to this “certain woman”. He has few opportunities to exert control, and his efforts to exploit the leverage he has with his mother are equal parts comic and tragic.
“I vowed that I would never take advantage of her love and concern for me. I believed it at the time. But I might as well have made that vow with my fingers crossed behind my back.”
The narrative exposition is largely in Percy’s head (and, because he has no friends, he spends a lot of time in solitary reflection) and always in his purview; as the years pass slowly, and Percy wallows in loneliness, the pace of the novel slows at times (although, in comparison with Ulysses, Johnston’s “Joyce book” appears abridged).
But his perspective on St. John’s is intricate and rich.
“I went to the window and noticed first the distant view – St. John’s, the part of it to the east of downtown, the brightly coloured houses of the Battery, Signal Hill topped by Cabot Tower, the / grey Atlantic whose whitecaps were lopping through the Narrows, causing the hull of a small outbound ship to rise and fall as though it was deadlocked with the current. I looked down at a sharper angle and saw, first, Bonaventure Avenue, and, second, our house, the red and green façade of 44, the leaf-strewn veranda, the massive Block out front.”
And there are great swathes of dialogue which are wholly entertaining. The exchanges between Penelope and her sister-in-law (also secret lover) Medina and the live-in schoolteacher (a boarder with benefits) are particularly fun to read.
And furthermore, for those who know the original myth and Joyce’s retelling, there are additional pleasures to be found herein.
“Ulysses takes place on June 16th, known world round as Bloomsday. Percy’s birthday would be June 24th, known Newfoundland-round as St. John’s Day. Because of his physical defect, Percy would be a social outcast, his a-sociality real, not a pose contrived out of haughtiness and spite like that of Stephen. But I would draw upon A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man when I felt like it, using Stephen as Joyce did, as a mouthpiece for ideas that would otherwise have no means of gaining entry to the book.”
Those who know Johnston’s propensity for adding new layers to old stories (histories: of politicians, millionaires and polar explorers, for instance) will not be surprised to find that this story had its genesis in the idea of another slant on events recorded elsewhere in a different voice.
“’Hamlet to my Gertrude.’
‘Penny,’ Medina sniffed. ‘You’re the only one here who knows what that means.’
‘Pardon my education.’”
From the lies that Percy tells to the lies that he is encouraged to believe, there is an undeniable love of tale-spinning and storytelling in The Son of a Certain Woman.
And, as Penelope observes: “Taking a reasonable tone with unreasonable people can be very wearisome. It’s the heretics against the lunatics. And I’m aware that, historically, the lunatics are way out in front.”
The Son of a Certain Woman: a novel for heretics and lunatics. (And readers of this year’s Giller longlist.)
Jennifer Quist’s Love Letters of the Angels of Death is a taut novel which pulls the reader into the story with only a few paragraphs.
Not only through plot, though the first paragraph is a bold invitation to read on: ”It was only a matter of time before we found human remains. Maybe that’s true for everyone. This is how it happened for us.”
But through style and voice. Just a few paragraphs into the story, the narrative slips from describing the events that ‘we’ and ‘us’ have experienced and begins to directly address ‘you’.
Technically, it’s not ‘you’ the reader, but someone else; still, nothing engages a reader like a direct address, even if it’s a case of misunderstanding, as it is here.
Linda Leith Publishing, 2013
The ‘you’ is not the reader, in fact, but the narrator’s wife, Brigs’ wife. And if the perspective is a little disorienting, that is deliberate. There is something askew: here, there are human remains.
Getting acquainted with Brigs under these circumstance, as he is discovering the body of a family member, casts his relationship with the reader in a paradoxically distancing and intimate light.
“For the first few hours we spend inside in the trailer, we walk around the outline, reverent and ginger. But by the time we leave at the end of the day we’ve learned to stomp right over it, as if its edges weren’t lightly streaked with dried, burgundy blood.”
It is a peculiar choice artistically, this form of address, but it is consistently and credibly employed and, once the full story is understood, it is impossible to understand the tale having been told any other way.
“‘I think I’ve figured out what happened,’ you finally tell me. And you walk through the trailer narrating the story in the physical evidence, like a voice-over at the end of one of those Agatha Christie movies…on Sunday nights.”
This is not a simple process of discovery for the reader, however. There is no voice-over, only the reader’s gradual and tentative assembly of events. For an impatient reader, this might be a source of frustration.
Like the young boy in the funeral parlor, forced to wait while adults make decisions he cannot comprehend, the reader might grow antsy.
“You’ve had enough and you’re pulling him out by his thin white arms. He doesn’t like anything about the wine-coloured quiet of the consultation room.”
At the sentence-level, this story is constructed with basic building blocks. The language is simple and the style clean, though it’s easy to imagine, for instance, that peculiar kind of quiet described and the contrast that this young boy’s presence provokes.
If the reader takes a step back, the view of the story is more like a mind-map than a slide presentation, however; descriptions and recollections of deaths that this couple has experienced in the past are clustered around the central idea of loss.
These experiences are not exactly shared chronologically, but the accumulation of experiences creates a mood and develops character in a deliberate and memorable manner. This is essential to the novel’s success.
“I guess we still haven’t slowed down enough to properly explain what’s happening to our own kids. I’m leaning over the bathroom sink trying to hold my necktie out of the way as I spit out mouthfuls of toothpaste when I hear Scottie, our oldest son, ask you ‘What is a funeral?’
You only pause for a split second before you answer. ‘It’s kind of like a wedding reception – only the bride has to be a dead person.’”
Jennifer Quist invites the reader to a literary funeral, but she doesn’t provide the card with directions and details until the end of her debut novel: it’s definitely worth the wait.
The cover image for Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky perfectly encapsulates the novel’s themes, structure, setting and tone.*
A child’s bicycle leans against a garage door, the only sign of habitation. The view of the alleyway leaves the safety of home beyond the edges of the scene.
The shadows are as predominant as the shapes of the buildings. The darkness above the bicycle seems larger than the frame.
The rooftops angle, inviting the eye into the centre of the image, where the wires above intersect. But the bulk of the image is devoted to the sky overhead, which is echoed in the muted blues and grey.
Antonio is twelve years old; he is still riding a child’s bike but he is venturing into the alleyways.
He is discovering that he can know things about the world that his parents do not know.
He is learning to unearth what his parents strive to keep him from knowing.
Doubleday – Random House, 2013
“My mother didn’t know half the things that went on in our world. She didn’t know about what Ricky did at the pool hall or that Manny stole bikes. Or that I sometimes stood watch when Manny and Ricky robbed the houses of families on holiday in Portugal.”
All of this is equal parts thrilling and frightening, for Antonio is unprepared to deal with some of what lurks at the margins of his experience.
Bringing this vulnerability into sharp focus is the disappearance of Emanuel Jacques, an event which profoundly impacted the residents of Toronto and, particularly, the Portuguese community.
On July 28, 1977 Emanuel went with his brother and a friend to Yonge Street with a homemade shoeshine-kit, where the boys were offered $35 to help move some camera equipment. While the other two boys went to use a telephone to call their parents to ask for permission to do so, Emanuel was taken to an apartment nearby, where he was confined, raped, and eventually murdered.
Antonio assembles a fractured understanding of these events from overheard conversations, glimpses of newspapers, and the warnings of family and community members.
“I have a couple of police friends that are slipping me some juicy bits. It’s hard to get this information. Everyone in our newsroom is just too polite so they asked me to use my American know how to dazzle a few answers out of them.”
Antonio has no knowledge of the “juicy bits”, but those are just the bits he craves to know. Edite is a reporter who is interested in the parts of the story that are not being covered in the media, and as a reporter she is committed to exposing the truth, even though she recognizes the value of a well-told lie.
She, too, lives in the neighbourhood, which is described in vibrant prose, rich in sensory detail.
“The smell of mothballs, cooking oils that had seeped into the fabric of their clothes, glycerine soap, and baby powder caked by sweat became dizzying.”
And not simply the city of Toronto, although it has a solid presence on the novel’s pages (Euclid, Markham and Palmerston streets; City Hall; Old City Hall; Princes Gate at the Ex; Yonge Street; Eatons Centre; Regent Park; park at the foot of Bathurst; Food Building at the Ex; bank at the corner of Queen and Bathurst; Kensington Market; Future Bakery; Czehoski’s on Queen; College Park shopping centre; CN Tower; Massey Hall; Maple Leaf Gardens; building of the Leslie Street spit; St Mary’s Church; Alexandra Park on Bathurst; Toronto General Hospital; St. Mike’s Hospital; Vanauley Walk).
But the world of Little Portugal, including the spectrum within that community, between the mainland Portuguese and the “dirty Azoreans” (including the novels’ main characters).
“The branches of the fig tree had grown heavy with fruit since then. My uncle had smuggled the seedling into the country from his yard back home on the island. It had been carefully packed in his luggage with a wheel of Portuguese cheese, chouiço, and some live crabs.”
The kind of detail in the story is tactile, everyday and yet remarkable. The language is simple, the imagery uncomplicated.
“The lock clicked into place, a sound I had first heard the night Emanuel Jacques went missing, I pressed my forehead against the window screen, into the bulge that had formed over the years. I could feel my hair sticking up, electrically charged. It had rained all day. It was a hot rain, the kind that falls when the sun is out. Clinging to the night air was the smell of wet concrete.”
And, yet, the author layers these simple details with precision and care.
This boy’s forehead, leaning against the screen: it echoes the idea of significant childhood events leaving a subtle mark behind on the landscape, and in turn, the image is echoed elsewhere in the story.
Antonio’s mother leaves a kiss on his forehead and lightly blows on it; she leans her own forehead against the window of the bus at night; Mr Serjeant’s cap leaves a red band on his forehead when he removes it after working; Senhora Gloria’s starched white band leaves a mark on her forehead; and, there is the indentation in the screen, which brackets the story, appearing at its beginning and its end.
Other echoes add to the power of the narrative; there are three bodies of three victims (identifying them would be spoiling, of course, but readers will remember them) and there are three severe beatings in the story as well. The power of threes: this has a significance in the story as well.
Kicking the Sky is a sad story; there are many injuries recounted, many tragic and all damaging. But the act of storytelling is a source of power, even for the powerless in this tale.
What is not said is sometimes as important as what is spoken, sometimes the most significant portions of truth must remain protected:
“Sometimes, the things we want most in the world we guard previously. Saying the words may make it disappear.”
And sometimes breaking the silence is a source of power as well:
“There was so much that I did not want to say because not saying it made things easier. I know that’s not right now.”
The need to be silent competes with the need to speak out. Such a paradox also exists in the idea of the sky, which represents both freedom and risk.
Running across the rooftops, Antonio most loves the leaps across the gaps between the buildings, the sense of flight with a landing in sight. The contrast adds significance to both extremes.
But growing up is like running across the rooftops without a place to land at the end. It is fear and belief in one. “Fear is a terrible thing,” one character says. “Believing feels good,”says another.
“The moment you’re afraid, you close your eyes,” he said. “That’s when the earth opens and swallows you up.”
The earth can be security and comfort, it can swallow you whole. There is nothing simple about growing up, about uncovering the truths that adults have shielded you from knowing, about making sense of contradictions.
Anthony De Sa has a particular way of telling this story. Readers wonder whether he doesn’t have a bit of Edite in him.
“She’s interested in what makes people tick,” James said. “Edite’s brave, you know. She’s more interested in how Emanuel’s murder has affected the gay community, how they’ve all been made out to look like animals. It’s the kind of story most reporters are afraid to tell.”
Kicking the Sky is the kind of story some authors are afraid to tell too.
“It was hard to explain…it seemed like the person I was now was not the person I would’ve been if Emanuel Jaques had not been murdered, if James hadn’t dropped into our world out of nowhere. I’d never have the chance to be that boy again.”
Like The Little Prince, the source of the novel’s epigraphs, Antonio grapples with the wider world; the boy is changed, the community is changed, and while some possibilities emerge, others are eclipsed.
Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky is well-crafted and poignantly told: the slaughter of innocence, squealing and bloody, with what-might-have-been left to drain into a pail.
*Cover illustration, Todd Stewart, Jacket Design, C.S. Richardson
Diane Schoemperlen’s Our Lady of the Lost and Found (for the mystical elements)
Andrew Borkowski’s Copernicus Avenue (for the vivid depiction of community)
Steven Hayward’s The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke (for coming-of-age in TO)
Reading Hellgoing makes me wonder about Lynn Coady’s personal relationships.
Not for the obvious reasons that other readers might identify, stories like “Body Condom” and “Play the Monster Blind”.
But because I imagine that in order to write a short story, she disappears for a spell.
I imagine she crawls inside the skin of her latest narrator. And not just figuratively, but literally.
Pieces of writing advice swirl in my mind. I think of playlists, Pinterest pages, lists of pocket contents, memory maps, sketches, shopping lists and photographs culled from flea markets.
I think of flaying, a raw and visceral tableau, of the overwhelming smells and sounds as the writer lifts the skin and, lip-curlingly, allows this fresh and gutsy form to take hold.
House of Anansi – Astoria, 2013
Because with each of the stories in Hellgoing, I feel as though Lynn Coady wholly and completely inhabits that imagined world.
And not simply because they are vivid. Or because each story adds to a sense of growing familiarity.
But because these stories are distinct. (This is also reflected in the design, which dedicates a full title page to each individual story.)
And, often, distinctly unsettling.
It makes me think that there is a little of Jane in the author.
“The single-mindedness is what’s key, the tunnel vision – precisely what’s required and precisely what makes you seem a freak to the rest of the world. Visionaries and drinkers: obsessed with away, looking for else.”
Well, having questioned the author’s personal relationships, why hesitate in drawing a comparison to a character who observes that single-mindedness is the mark of a freak?
Anyway, I really like Jane. And her theory on single-mindedness.
I like that she admires Jean Rhys’ writing but disavows herself from those heroines who lie back on a head and allow an arm to fall across their eyes.
I like that she stares at her surroundings head-on (even if things are a little blurry sometimes).
And I like stories that smack you out of your own head for a time.
I like the tingly bit that reading a story like that leaves behind, the mark on a reader’s skin of bold-telling.
For me, the most powerful bits of these stories reside in their emotional resonance.
“Back then, she told everybody everything – every shameful detail. She couldn’t have shut up if she tried. And people believed her, they heard her, they were every bit as angry as she was. She was soaring on outrage, the energy of having it released, as if she’d been flung from a slingshot.”
“Where the actual subject under discussion didn’t matter because all they really wanted was to feel each other’s voices buzzing in their bodies.”
“That was the earliest lesson, when it came to vigilance, the giddiest lesson. You flew to the end of the road no matter what the flag was doing, you didn’t hesitate, you stood up on your toes and had a look either way. You could never trust the flag.”
“She felt the clump of rage she’d swallowed in the car nudge its way upward from her stomach, lodge centre-chest and pop like a blister.”
“My mind, which I had lately been so proud of, grappled with him; tried to feel its way around him and settle on something – some kind of soft spot – that would allow it to relax.”
These are stories of extreme states: outrage, infatuation, joy, fury, confusion.
Frequently, they present characters who are captured in a moment of disorientation.
And, yet, there is something most determinedly assured about the reader’s experience of that state.
Occasionally, there is a delicate bit which almost painfully exposes the moment of epiphany.
“The phrase wheeled around in her head, clanging, like a pot-lid dropped and spinning across a kitchen floor.”
Dogs in Clothes
“(And I’ll tell you something about my memory. It isn’t like memory at all. I don’t have to reach back. It’s all just there. Everything just settles in behind my eyes, accumulating into a giant clot.)”
A spontaneous trip to Newfoundland. An unreasonable fear of a “two-headed, tea-slurping father-thing”. A counterpoint of text messaging. A reluctant nun convinces an anorexic woman to take Communion. Couples debate the true nature of happiness. A daughter takes the kindness of strangers for granted.
Lynn Coady’s stories prick beneath the skin, and her characters pull back the tissue, so that something else – whole and fresh – emerges.
It’s hard to believe that a writer like this has anything left to give to anyone other than her readers after creating such fictions.
I cringe, I wince; I marvel, I admire. Hellgoing: a beautiful injury.
Wireless; Hellgoing; Dogs in Clothes; Take This and Eat It; An Otherworld; Clear Skies; The Natural Elements; Body Condom; Mr. Hope