The word ‘goodish’ entered my vocabulary thanks to an observation that Carol Shields makes of two female friends in The Republic of Love. (General increased usage of -ish also ensued.)
“They love the word ‘goodish,’ as in goodish sunsets, goodish travel bargains, goodish men.”
The title and cover of Suzanne Sutherland’s When We Were Good brought that to mind immediately. I’m not sure that was intentional, but certainly the handholding brings bonds between young women to mind.
And readers are intended to reflect upon the Bloor Street Viaduct, which features in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, a novel which Katherine is studying at school.
(It not only appears in class discussions but as part of the Toronto landscape in which Suzanne Sutherland’s novel unfolds.)
The simple bookishness of this debut novel is one reason readers will respond immediately. For instance, when Katherine’s grandmother dies, she finds comfort in reading her grandmother’s favourite stories.
“In four days I read almost everything Alice Munro had ever written. She was Grandma’s favourite; her short stories were these perfect little pearl worlds that lured me out of my own head for the few hours that I gave myself over to them completely. I fell asleep more than once face down in Grandma’s old hardcover copy of Munro’s Selected Stories, long after the words had stopped making sense.”
But Katherine does not only find comfort in books, connection and a sense of safety. She also finds herself there. “The book was an amulet, it was my protector. It was sacred, it was holy.”
Though not exclusively in books, also in music (and how this took me back to those years). Katherine experiences music profoundly in a solitary context.
“I shut off every part of me but my ears, trying to let the pure sound take me over. The hairs on my arms stood on end. That kind of radical honesty, the ability to completely be yourself through your art, was something I knew I’d never be capable of. I cried until the album was over.”
But when she meets Marie, she is introduced to new bands and begins to attend live shows regularly, and those experiences are terrifically exciting and overwhelming for a variety of reasons.
The intensity of her teenage years is depicted authentically and unsentimentally. Nonetheless, Katherine is clearly having a tough year. “I was starting to wonder if I’d already run through my tear quota for the year. And it was only the beginning of February.”
But the story is not unremittingly bleak, far from it. The credible dialogue, the pacing of the prose, the variety of characters, the light-touch on heavy-subjects: all of this invites readers to spend time with the story.
And, oh, I want to avoid spoiler territory, but can’t help but say that there is a most wonderfully satisfying ending. Quintessential goodishness.
That is true, too, of Elizabeth Stewart’s Blue Gold, although the subject matter is markedly different; questions of identity and complications uniquely rooted in girls’ coming-of-age are also prominent in the three narratives herein.
The focus shifts from North America and Fiona, to Africa and Sylvie, to Asia and Laiping.
In Laiping’s narrative, chronicling her experience of being a “factory girl” in Shenzeng, the question of being “good” is overtly addressed.
“A good daughter obeys her parents. You must stay and learn to tolerate the work,” she is told.
And Laiping – like the other girls in these stories – does strive to be “good”.
“She lifted her knees higher than usual during marching exercises, and worked with extra concentration—ignoring Bohai at her side—so grateful was she to Miss Lau and Miss Jang, and to Steve Chen.”
But the challenges she faces are overwhelming. She cannot fit everybody’s expectations of a “good” girl.
Each of the girls must cope with the idea of failing to conform with these expectations, even when the circumstances eliminate the possibility that they can be “good”.
“In a way, it was funny. But then her heart sank. What if her parents found out? She wished she could be the type of girl who didn’t care, but she wasn’t—and [Fiona] did.”
And although the penalties for being “bad” are different for each girl, the constant threat and vulnerability is something that they share and each struggles to respond to situations in which they feel powerless.
Sylvie’s experiences after fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, inhabiting a refugee camp, are most egregious. This is presented in vague terms initially.
“But nobody talked about what tragedies they had endured there. It was taken for granted that everyone in the camp had lost someone they loved—a child, a spouse, sometimes a whole family. Talking about it was too painful. It seemed to Sylvie that everyone here was waiting for pain to end and for life to begin again.”
But Sylvie shares more of her story when an aid worker gains her trust and in time readers hear those details too. This is difficult to read about, but readers are shielded because neither Sylvie nor her listener dare to delve too deeply into the young girl’s memories at that time (and, indeed, there are aspects of Sylvie’s experience which are not disclosed until near the end of the novel).
Sylvie’s narrative is vitally important because it provides the anchor for the other girls’ stories.
Her homeland is the region which is being mined for “the blue-black nuggets of columbite-tantalite ore that was plentiful in the high-lands surrounding their valley…blue gold”.
The coltan is shipped to factories like the one in which Laiping works and is a vital component in the cell phones which play a significant role in fuelling the cyber-bullying which Fiona faces.
The link between the narratives is evident within a few chapters of the novel, but the threads are not overtly tied until specific plot events unfold and, even then, the web is not tightly drawn.
This is appropriate because although the connections are undeniably true, these are not ties which are immediately evident. (A short video here sketches the connections.)
Certainly cell-phone users in Canada do not generally contemplate the fact that the current methods of production of mobile devices is wrecking havoc with human rights and environmental stewardship; the connection exists but it appears amorphous, and the narrative links are present but subtle as well. (At the back of the book, readers can learn more about the facts behind the girls’ stories, and there are recommended books and resources listed.)
Thematically, these works have more in common than readers might expect. From conflict with parents and questions about sexuality to death and murder, from dislocation and injustice to rape and assault, from suicide to depression: throughout it all, these girls try to be good.
Katherine, Fiona, Sylvie and Laiping embody stories that many readers of all ages will find compelling.
Is either of these books on your TBR list? Have you encountered any serious subjects in your kidlit reading lately?