With chapters named for the days of the week in Street Angel and with specific dates in a given week in Adult Onset, these two novels seem to make ideal reading companions.
Ultimately, much of literary fiction is preoccupied with time. Whether it is Molly Bloom’s day in James Joyce’s classic Ulysses or the week of contemporary romance in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Landline, the stuff of characters’ minutes and years is what keeps readers turning the pages even as it assists authors in organizing and presenting their stories.
Street Angel is part of Wilfrid Laurier’s Life Writing series, as is Magie Dominic’s work of non-fiction, The Queen of Peace Room, which chronicles an eight-day retreat spent with Catholic nuns, their days ordered by prayers and rituals.
This slim novel moves readers through time like a kaleidoscope, through the days of the week and through the years.
“From the very beginning of time to now, in the back seat of my father’s car, it took 600 million years for Newfoundland to rise from the ocean floor. How did I get from the beginning of time to my father’s Chevrolet with the chains on the bumper? Count it!”
Magie Dominic’s works are somewhat like bookends, nearly a pair but each holding up its own end of stacked memories. Both are narratives characterized by a meditative tone coupled with a reliance upon evocative details to create mood and scene. But Street Angel perfectly captures entire decades in a handful of sentences.
“It’s 1957, 1958. Paul Anka and Ricky Nelson are on the radio. Pat Boone and “Love Letters in the Sand.” “Wake Up Little Susie.” The Asian flu is in China, Russia launches Sputnik, and Humphrey Bogart dies in Hollywood. Father Knows Best. The Blob. The Fly. The Thing That Couldn’t Die. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The Three Faces of Eve—Joanne Woodward goes completely berserk because she’s three people at once and loses her mind with a venetian blind in her hand. I will never forget The Three Faces of Eve, and I will never feel safe around a venetian blind for the rest of my life.”
It is so satisfying at the sentence level that readers, particularly those with a penchant for coming-of-age stories (coming-to-understanding-an-earlier-age, might be more accurate for The Queen of Peace Room), might find themselves flagging passages on every page (perhaps I should say every minute).
“Newfoundland is triangular, with unpredictable winters and sometimes violent winds. The west coast is an extension of North America. The east coast was once part of Africa. The continents collided, lava gushed forth, and Newfoundland was created—and with it a soil combination producing flowers found nowhere else on the face of the earth. The island is covered with mountains 300 million years old. This is exactly where I was born eleven years ago—on a 300-million-year-old triangle.”
While clearly one particular woman’s story, there are many aspects to her experience to which readers will respond as universals.
“There are two things I can’t get enough of: movies and snow. Movies change anything that’s going on in my mind, and snow changes the world around me. Snow transforming the town, icicles as tall as a house, and angel shapes in the snowbanks.”
Much of this story is difficult, however, even painful (which readers of Queen of the Peace Room will expect): “I’m trying to piece every shred of my life back together again—if there ever was a before.”
But ultimately it is a narrative infused with hope:
“I still have my slightly pigeon-toed feet and a tragic look on my face, and I still don’t know how to have a real conversation. It’s all followed me for all fifteen years of my life. But it doesn’t matter on the top of this hill, with its dark trees and sky, mountains folded around it like a body in sleep. The Beothuk walked here before me—there’s no doubt in my mind about that. And they probably prayed in thanksgiving for the sacred view. Smoked from their long wooden pipes. Chanted in gratitude.”
There is a quiet humour to the narrative voice, which makes Street Angel a true pleasure to read. Which is no small feat because knitting together a shredded life must involve a few dropped stitches and some painful reworking of old patterns.
This excerpt from the narrative sums up Street Angel beautifully: “It’s a cup of hot tea and something homemade at the end of the day. And it’s everything in between.”
That “in between” is sometimes hard to swallow but the taste the meal leaves on your tongue is the sort which makes you want to invite all your friends to share a second helping.
Magie Dominic’s Street Angel brought Ann-Marie MacDonald’s debut novel, Fall on My Knees, to mind many times: a Maritime setting, a glimpse of Lebanese culture, a troubled mother, a daughter who challenged a traditional set of expectations, Catholic upbringing, and painful childhood events which haunt adult life.
Adult Onset brushes against many of these themes as well, but with a starkly different setting (downtown Toronto, in the Annex) and a focus on older female characters.
It feels distinct from the author’s two other novels, and yet, as she states in an interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, this new novel could be viewed as part of a trio which deals with a progression of issues which present themselves in a series of life stages, so that readers might also expect to meet Mary Rose (or MR, “Mister”) as an extension of the experiences of younger female characters, like Madeleine and Frances.
Charismatic female narrators dominate Ann-Marie MacDonald’s fiction, and Mary Rose is no exception. Readers are in the grip of her perspective from the novel’s opening lines. And wholly and completely in her head as she navigates an ordinary day as wife and mother and children’s book writer, as she navigates an ordinary moment of trying to reply to an email from her father.
This should be a simple task but, in fact, it occupies her for a considerable amount of time, as she sorts through the layers of meaning and echoes of past experiences related to a few typed lines of text. The narrative vascillates between present and past, the drama primarily interior but surprisingly engaging.
Like Street Angel, this story has some very painful aspects. Mary Rose has suffered physical and emotional pain, a difficult medical condition and a difficult coming-of-age. (I wish that the young narrators could have been friends; I think they would have had much to discuss.)
“Rising, she felt the familiar capsule break in the pit of her stomach and the dark elixir seep into her bloodstream. Guilt. But why? Her Catholic upbringing had left her prone to attacks of it like recurring bouts of malaria in old soldiers. Maybe she’d been born with a low guilt threshold, the way people are born with green eyes or black hair. Or bone cysts.”
The link between guilt and sexuality is explored via the connection between emotional and physical pain in Mary Rose’s past (which seems to be ever-present).
“Sins you committed with your hand by touching yourself ‘down there.’ The constant pain in her arm was not only a punishment, it was a beacon of her badness. Throbbing red light of badness, its pulsations occupied the same frequency as sexual excitement. Best keep that sort of pain to oneself.”
Adult Onset slips between time easily, which is suprising in a work which appears so tightly delineated as to have each segment named for a sequential day in a single week of the narrator’s experience. This works primarily because readers are so thoroughly immersed in Mary Rose’s consciousness; because we are not obligated to pretend a degree of objectivity, we float between times easily, stumbling across the scars as she does.
“But when she looks directly at it, it vanishes. Slips her mind as though somewhere in her brain there is a sheer strip that interrupts the flow of neural goods and services. Like a scar.”
One particularly satisfying element of the novel is the sense of the story’s own physicality, largely through the use of metaphors surrounding physical injury; these paradoxically draw greater attention to the accompanying emotional damage which has been done. For instance, Mary Rose sits “immobilized as the air changed around them, thickened like a welt”. (I wish there had been more of this, to contribute to a sense of layered narrative.)
However, the standout element of Adult Onset is the storytelling rather than the crafting; Mary Rose’s character is credible (not always likeable, but all-the-more credible for that) and readers are compelled to explore her tale.
“Grafts leave scars on the skin, yes, but on bone too. Scars make you stronger, and they help tell a story; like striations in igneous rock, a story of eruptions and epochal inches. Her scars can take her home. Down to the bone, into the marrow, down among the stem cells where the stories germinate.”
Although I was preoccupied by the synergy between these tales (the organizational motif, the themes, the emphasis on the female experience, the sense of physicality, the vibrant settings, the charisma). the two novels are as different in as many ways as they are similar.
What resounds in both stories, however, is the idea of narrator as witness. Whether Street Angel‘s poignant macro/micro scene-setting (“The sixties happened in a matter of minutes. I know, because I was the one counting it.”) or Mary Rose’s overt comments on storytelling (“Pinhole aperture, like an old-fashioned camera. All she can do is try to bear witness. Writer, write thyself … “) these works chronicle women’s lives.
Across the minutes, across the years: whether you are #ReadingWomen or simply reading women, at least one of these novels will strike your reading fancy. (For what it’s worth, Street Angel is on my list of favouite reads for 2014.)