As a fan of Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories, I was wriggling in my seat over the mere idea of Girl Runner. But then the anxiety crept in: there would be no Juliet, and perhaps much of the magic was hers. Just as the same river can’t be stepped in twice, an author cannot retell a favourite story.
And then Girl Runner was shortlisted for the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, a nod which increased my excitement and my anxiety.
The other volumes nominated for that particular award are certainly accomplished. Andre Alexis’ Pastoral is incisive and exacting. K.D. Miller’s All Saints exhibits a delicate balance throughout the linked collection of stories, which is difficult to sustain (this was true, too, of The Juliet Stories). The layered storytelling in Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist is simply exquisite. And Miriam Toews’ novels are characterized by strong and engaging women’s voices with Yoli’s exceptionally striking because it deliberates upon a woman’s desire to take her own life in All My Puny Sorrows (this claimed the prize).
Girl Runner offers, however, a winning combination of story and character. Not only the grit and sweat of sport and the pursuit of perfection as in Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage or Elizabeth Ruth’s Matadora. Nor the cool rhythmic slip between historical and contemporary times so often evident in Jane Urquhart’s fiction. Not just the total immersion in a female voice which might not be entirely reliable, as with Catherine Bush’s Accusation or Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nor the kaleidoscopic view of life from near-beginning to near-end like Christina Schwarz’s The Edge of the Earth or Hilary Scharper’s Perdita. But something of all of these.
Thematically, the idea of getting acquainted with Aganetha Smart via memories from her life, which spanned the better part of the twentieth century, immediately appealed.
Stylistically, the transitions between the past and present narratives chronicling Aganetha’s experiences are handled brilliantly.
Sometimes they are seamless, the rush between times mirroring that moment when a runner truly hits her stride, that sense of simultaneous weightlessness and solidity, as each step propels. And sometimes they are abrupt, like the rush of stopping, the breathlessness of shifting into a different state.
So at the end of one segment, Aganetha recalls an earlier run, euphoric and empowered. “I know I can’t be spent.”
And, then, the next segment begins: “We’ve come to the blue car: nondescript, wouldn’t stand out in police alerts. The young man, Max, is opening a rear door, and the girl wheels my chair nearer. I say, Are we going somewhere?”
This is tremendously satisfying, and the prose is carefully constructed to more generally echo Aganetha’s state of being as well.
In her youth, she speaks directly, pointedly. She is emboldened.
In her later years, she moves as others wish her to move. And although she speaks with the same directness, she no longer possesses the same sense of agency, and this is reflected not only in the nuts-and-bolts breakdown of individual scenes, but in a slightly-meandery and more distanced tone. Aganetha is no longer on the track; she is sitting on the sidelines.
But if readers were expecting a quiet, reflective read, they have forgotten that Aganetha is still a runner at heart.
For all the calm that exists when a runner reaches her stride, her heart is pumping and her feet are pounding. Very near the beginning of Girl Runner, readers are informed that this is no dreamy slice-of-life story but one with a plot, a mystery.
Here it is: the signal that the race is underway.
“Lies. Let me count the ways.
There is the lie of omission, the lie of avoidance, the lie outright, the boast, the tiny indulgence or fudging, the sly miscalculation, the rounding up or down, there is flattery, and the little white lie, and there is the bold sweep, the lie of epic proportions with a million smaller lies to underpin it, there are the muddling lies that confuse or confound, the lie of distraction, the lie that knows it will be caught out, the cold-blooded lie and the quick-witted lie and the lie made in terror and haste, the lie that must lie and lie again to cover its tracks, and, of course, there is the lie that fools even the liar, who knows not what he or she propagates.
That last one is the most dangerous of all, for it can trick almost everyone. It can come to look like the truth.
And so I think of another lie. The lie of my own choosing, that lives with me yet, and without me. The lie that protects. That shelters. That builds its fragile hiding place of love.”
Fragility and protection, strength and duplicity, true-self and under-self: Girl Runner does not detour around contradictions.
“There is absence, and there is vanishing, and these are not the same thing at all.”
Maybe these are the sort of imaginings which float in the author’s mind when she is running, when she is creating the space in which the ideas will emerge, caught between cascades of motion and moments of stillness. (She describes her writing process in this piece for CBC Canada Writes.)
“The appearance of perfection does not interest me. It is the illumination of near-disaster beside which we all teeter, at all times, that interests me. It is laughing in the face of what might have been, and what is not.” (It might sound as though this is lifted from the article cited in the paragraph above, but all of these quotes are from the novel.)
This teetering is at the heart of Girl Runner and adds substantial heft to the narrative. Aganetha is a fully credible and expansive character because even when she is still, she is in motion. She is still reevalating, examining, considering, deliberating. She is active, even when she appears confined. She is still running her race.
““I think I would run even if I knew I would never win another race again. It’s weird. I can’t explain it. It’s like something I can’t turn off.'”
Here’s hoping that Carrie Snyder feels the same way — about running, perhaps, but most definitely about storytelling. I don’t want her to turn it off. I’m adding her to my list of MRE authors.