Austin Clarke’s More
Thomas Allen, 2008

I can’t help it: when I see a stack of new books at the library, I am compelled to, at the very least, ogle them. Usually I pick one up. Often I pet one (even if it’s just a shinier version of a favourite that I have at home). And sometimes I borrow something completely unexpected just because it was new and in pleasant and abundant company.

That wasn’t entirely the case with the large stack of copies of Austin Clarke’s More, because I’ve been meaning to read one of his novels for several years now. But certainly it was the irresistible charm of a large stack of new library books that moved this writer’s work from my TBR list to my TBR stack and into my reader’s hands in late March. And so, it seems that Toronto’s One Book campaign is working.

It seems doubly appropriate for More to be Toronto’s One Book because it’s a novel told in One Voice, that of Idora (Eye-dora) Morrison, who was born and raised in Barbados but is now a Barbadian Canadian.

This narrative decision won’t work for everybody because presenting things wholly from Idora’s perspective means that sometimes time passes slowly and there is lots of infolding as she reminisces, so the cathedral bells outside chime and she checks the clock and falls back into a half-sleep, and dozens of pages later — pages filled with memory and backstory — the clock shows that an hour has passed. The prose style mirrors this meandering and the layering of characterization is subtle but solid.

Here is a spoiler-free excerpt:

In those days, from November almost right into April. she had woken up in this darkness, gotten dressed in this darkness, gone to work by bus, streetcar and subway, in this cold darkness, and when it was all over, at six in the evening (but it was even eleven o’clock after she had cooked and served formal dinner), she retraced her steps on the cold, silent journey home, sitting beside men and women she did not know, who did not speak to her, not even saying “Cold-enough for ya?”, no one saying “Good evening” or “Good morning”; leaving her to trudge, alone, over blocks of ice and cold pavement, over thick, heavy falling snow, cold and silent, and she often wondered if it was better for a black woman living in the United States, despite its Civil Rights problems. (68)

I know it won’t be to everyone’s taste (I can hear the charges now: “wordy”, “repetitive”, “dull”), and it does not lend itself to reading quickly.

But, if you appreciate varied narrative styles, and don’t mind affording them some time, I think you’ll agree: presented in this way, you can feel the layers of cold (not normal cold, but the stereotypical “Canadian-winter-cold” that burrows down into your body, especially, I would think, into the bodies of people who are accustomed to temperate climes), and you also gain a greater sense of Idora for this immediate access to her thoughts.

You will also need a taste for fiction that chronicles the everyday. Idora works as the Assistant Manager in the Trinity College dining hall. She feels guilty about not going to church more often. She regrets her involvement with “that man” (the man her mother warned her about) who left her.  She enjoys her friendship with Josephine (who is white and relatively privileged, economically and socially). She struggles with the fact that Josephine’s ex (who abuses the power he has as a white policeman) encapsulates the negative side of Idora’s life in Canada.

In many ways her concerns are common: she should lose some weight and take some classes, learn more and be more. And she is a mother, a mother desperately worried about her teenage son, desperately wanting a promising future for him. That’s not uncommon, as the mother of a black boy, a single mother left behind. Yes, I remember the media feature that Clark references though Idora’s eyes, which both acknowledged the incidence of black single mothers raising sons and perpetuated the stereotype and contributed to their profiling; Idora’s interpretation of this manages to bring out the emotional complexity of this in an effective and affecting way.

But what is uncommon is the consistency and credibility of Idora’s voice. It is striking. Which is why, when I found this after finishing the novel, I was so startled. In a March 1979 letter to Jack McClelland Austin Clark confesses: “MORE is perhaps, the most difficult novel I have attempted to write … because I do not seem to have the ‘voice’ which the novel demands.”

Of course More was a very different novel then (nearly 700 pages long apparently, with the focus on another set of characters, and Clark a less experienced writer, although his trilogy had been published to considerable acclaim); he has obviously got the voice which the novel demands now.

Which has surprised many readers, who find his ability to write from the perspective of female characters remarkable. This was also mentioned in regards to The Polished Hoe (which won all sorts of awards and is also presented in a woman’s voice, that of Mary-Mathilda) and Clarke has been questioned about this many times.

“Growing up in Barbados, I was very close to my mother,” Clarke recalls. “I was not permitted after school to play cricket with the boys because of homework and other duties. And when my mother became ill, which at a certain time was more frequent, I had to take over the duties that she would have done, as well as my own. It contributed to my understanding or consciousness of how a woman would behave.”

Idora’s son, BJ, is also a very strong presence in the novel. Her love for him, her worry for him, is almost tangible. And this emotion can run rampant through the prose, uninterrupted, because BJ doesn’t not physically intercede. This was a deliberate decision for, as Clarke says, “[n]ot being close to boys of that nature, I didn’t think I could describe him without reproducing certain images that are not always correct or comforting or compassionate.” But it’s as though BJ infiltrates the narrative, not from the fringes, but from beneath, a constant presence. “I thought that I could get at him more forcefully by having him as him as a shadow presence, like a ghost.” And it works.

Idora seems both annoyed and proud, frustrated and pleased by the attention that events like Black History Month bring to her community. She refers with some resentment to the libraries that bring out their stacks of books by black authors in February, determined to demonstrate how many dollars are invested in black literature but equally determined to shuffle them back into the stacks for the remaining twelve months of the year. It’s understandable. But, ironically, it was just such a stack of books — albeit displayed in March, not April — that introduced me to Idora. I regret not having made her acquaintance sooner.

Have you been introduced to, immersed in, a particularly strong narrative voice lately?
Have you taken the plunge with a writer you’ve been meaning to read for ages?