Please welcome back ReaderWoman, who has bookchatted here before, as part of the House of Anansi 45 reading celebration of indie presses and bookshops. (You can search for her posts using the tag GuestPost.)
She has been reading (among other good things, which you can discover here) Blanche Howard’s posthumously published The Ice Maiden (available in e-copy via Bev Editions).
Take it away, ReaderWoman!
Imagine travelling halfway around the globe and meeting up with a person having the same name as the protagonist in a book you wrote and are there to publicize. That is the situation Connie Brewster faces when she goes to England to attend a literary awards gala in London’s Guildhall.
The first chapter sent me to my bookshelves to eagerly pull out A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. A green post-it flag took me to a page marked a few years back where Blanche writes:
“I’ve read Jack Hodgins’ Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, and can see why it won the GG’s award…it is brilliantly conceived, the characters are strong…What else -oh yes, Doris Lessing’s second sci-fi book, a re-read of Henry James’ The Ambassadors for my reading club, and now we’re looking at Ibsen’s A Doll’s House… You asked if I’d read any Proust…”
Howard’s latest is a cornucopia of titles and names and resources representing alternate realities.
Midway through The Ice Maiden, Connie has a discussion with her friend Hermione in which Hermione says:
“In this day and age films provide us with an alternate reality, don’t you agree? Not so much reality as a different canvass in which to frame reality.”
This theme of alternate realities and reality versus fiction will appear several times in the book and is always thought-provoking given the particular situation .
The writing process itself is a major undercurrent in the book. In the first chapter Connie is reminded by her own behaviour of some writerly advice she was given long ago: NEVER TRASH YOUR OWN WORK. The writing process and the personal connection to that process is deftly handled by Howard through the insertion of appropriate sections from Connie’s published book into this book by Blanche Howard which we are reading.
Connie describes,, for instance, a research adventure/experiment she and her agent engaged in to learn about wheelchairs and combines it with a passage from The Ice Maiden which begins: Every day Reginald’s seventeen-year old adopted son Angus comes home from school and takes him for a walk outdoors in his wheelchair. This episode is tied to an episode in Connie’s own life in which she is hospitalized and her agent assists her in getting from one ward to another to see her son. In this episode there is also another reference to the “alternate realities” theme: “But now they were living in the realm of reality rather than fiction and the stakes were much higher.”
This intricate weaving of themes and the movement between the two novels and life is not always apparent on the first reading (and not seeing it does not detract from the reading at all) but makes itself clearer in a second reading and feels like a series of epiphanies or firecracker showers in the brain.
Early in the book, Connie makes an observation about publicity which reveals her ambivalence about that part of a writing career: “This need to transform oneself into someone others can get a handle on was, she supposed, the downside of fame.”
It is because of her writing career that Connie and her family are in England. It is partly because of a mention in her book of the Alberta tar sands project but also because Graham works for oil interests that two things happen to Connie, one known and exhilarating and one unknown and life-altering.
Relationships are the most interesting aspect of this novel for me and there are a plethora of them to consider as you might expect: Connie and her husband Graham (8 years older); Connie and Graham and their adult children Percy (Persephone) and Eliot (named after T.S.); Connie and her mother Cora; Connie and her agent Lucille Goodwin;Graham and Lucille; Graham and Cora; Graham and Hermione Fancourt (a biographer and an environmentalist) who introduces herself as “born a muggle [but] Hogwarts changed that.”; Connie and Peter Vancleigh (also a writer and a “Sir” and a homosexual); Connie and Angus. J. Watson (a person with the same name as the protagonist of Connie’s book).
From the beginning, when Graham forgets to include Lucille in Connie’s thank you speech at an award ceremony, to the end when he withholds a royalty cheque left by Lucille for Connie, we sense Connie’s unrest. When Graham thinks Hermione desires him and finds out that she wants to discuss Jevons Paradox and relate it to his employment by and support of Big Oil, we feel relieved. This is another seamless connection with the environmental topics included in both Connie’s novel and Howard’s novel. Hermione has asthma and is particularly interested in deteriorating air quality!
There are two minor threads in the novel which are of more than passing interest. The environmental issue is connected with Graham as indicated above. The second interesting minor thread is that of native heritage and identity which is confined to Connie’s novel but a connection can be drawn with Connie’s personal struggle to possess her own self.
This last book by Blanche Howard is a reader’s feast, so rich in so many ways.
There are allusions galore: artistic, geographic, historical, literary, mythical, and political. Beginning with Persephone and Cora as characters and a gathering at London’s Guildhall then continuing with writers such as Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Patrick White, A.S. Byatt and Charles Dickens.
The list goes on to include T. S. Eliot, Jackson Pollock, William James, Colm Toibin, Pat Barker, Marion Engel, John D. Rockefeller, Dylan Thomas, Ian McEwan, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the Mona Lisa!
These references alone provide readers great pleasure by acting as a wonderful reminder of pages and people to revisit.
Have you read Blanche Howard’s writing previously?
Does this sound like a novel that belongs on your TBR?