The thing with an explosion is that it comes out of nowhere. And that’s exactly what happens in Alison Watt’s debut novel.
Even though I knew that the 1917 event was at the heart of this Halifax story, I was completely absorbed in Clare and Fred’s ordinary workday at the glass factory, when their world changed suddenly and fundamentally.
Not only does the explosion change how these characters see the world, but the world begins to view them differently as well.
In Clare’s case, this is partly because she begins to reach beyond the familiar for something which fills the void she feels, both in the absence of her regular work at the glass factory and in the absence of her fiance, who is in the war, overseas.
Fred, too, is seen differently. His own experiences dating to the explosion have reshaped him, but now the rest of the community, perhaps even more sensitive to the threat of instability than usual, uses wartime politics to justify their prejudices against people with German ancestry.
The idea of seeing (and being seen) and attention to detail is at the forefront of the story from the beginning, with Clare’s work, looking for flaws in the glassware.
“Any of the other girls could have shown her how to find the fine cracks, the almost invisible bubble that would expand over time, until suddenly, when someone picked up a glass or set a vase on the table, it would shatter.”
The violence of wartime buffets against the violence of the explosion; it seems to bring the tensions immediately to home, despite the distance from the front.
“The next drawing was a pen and ink of soldiers carrying bodies on stretchers and standing over others, covered in sheets on the ground.
‘I didn’t know you were on the front,’ said Fred.
‘I wasn’t. This is Halifax.’ Lismer folded his arms.
Clare looked more closely at the drawing. It was called The Loved One. A woman crouched tenderly over one of the bodies.”
Arthur Lismer is one of the Group of Seven, and his commitment to Canadian art is evident here, too.
“It’s time to stop looking to Europe for our paintings. These are our landscapes and Canadian painters must paint them,” he said, spreading his arms wide, taking in the world outside the windows.”
The Canadian, Martime setting in Dazzle Patterns is vitally important. There on the edge of the country, like Clare and Fred occupy the margins of the bustle of activity around them, concrete memories of devastation within view.
“The fog was burning off, the harbour emerging piece by piece the bristling buildings of Dartmouth, the piers lined with ships greedily taking on supplies, the Basilica on Barrington Street, and further out, Georges Island. If Care looked more closely she could see unclaimed ruins still lying in places.”
But not just in desciptive passages. Alison Watt uses images which are as much a part of the setting as any talk of fog and harbour.
So, for instance, Clare’s “bare legs, [are] white as cod bellies” and “petals from the magnolia in the Biggs garden lay like pale shells on the lawn”. This is a Maritime story, no question.
Aspects of the story which afford an examination of the new opportunities available to women, for work and for study, are particularly satisfying.
Wartime possibilitites emerge in the form, for instance, of a touring exhibit, which allows Halifax residents to take in works like those of Frances Loring. Women artists might not have been welcome at the front, but they could present wartime experience from their position on the home front, and some dared to do so.
A growing understanding of the complexity of inner lives is also considered through characters’ experiences of mental and emotional distress, as well as specific psychiatric and physiological conditions which proliferated following the explosion. Addiction and Charles Bonnet Syndrome both play a substantial role in the aftermath of the event.
But even while it is a story of small-scale and sudden change, it is also a story of large-scale and lasting change.
“No, the past was constantly being reshaped by chance events standing at a window looking over the city on a winter morning, stopping to sketch a harbour – portents, becoming essential links in one’s small history.”
Because I so adored the story in Dazzle Patterns, I longed to tidy up a few details, like a character introduced by one half a name and later referred to by his other half (which wasn’t yet known by that character) and some patches of fog at the sentence level (like using both ‘overcast’ and the verb ‘cast’ in the same phrase).
But these are not the kind of flaws which can lead to a crack, only a few specks of dust. If I were not so infatuated by this story – these characters, the complexities which emerge thematically, the just-right handling of an ending which could have so easily gotten sloppy – I wouldn’t even be peering at the material this closely.
Not only am I eager to read whatever Alison Watt writes next, but now I want to read her non-fiction (The Last Island) and poetry (Circadia) too.