“The past presses so hard on the present, the present is badly bruised, blood brims under the skin.”
These lines from Brenda Shaughnessy’s poem “Nachträglichkeit”* fit beautifully with Darren Greer’s new novel, Advocate:
Not only because much of Advocate is preoccupied with memory, with what the characters carry with them everyday which belongs to another time.
But also because so much of it rests in the body. “I don’t think she realized how damaged by those times I really am.” The damage is extensive.
Jacob struggles whenever he returns to his hometown of Advocate, Nova Scotia, to his memories.
“Coming back into Nova Scotia after being away for any length of time is always a shock. From the moment we turn off the highway at the Advocate/Trenton exit, I begin to brace myself for the sameness of it all.”
Coming back to Nova Scotia and back to 1984, back to being a boy in his grandmother’s house. Back when there was a clear division between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the river.
Back in 1984 when, author Darren Greer explains,”there was no conversation about AIDS in high school”. (He was part of a roundtable discussion about redemption at this year’s International Festival of Authors.)
“Occasionally it was on the TV or in the news, he said, but even that was rare.” (I remember the first time I registered it seriously: in an article assigned by a high-school French teacher in school in 1986. It wasn’t familar enough for me to guess what SIDA might be: the entire assignment was baffling to me.)
That’s how it was for his narrator, Jacob, too: there was no conversation about it when his uncle David left his job as a schoolteacher in Toronto to return to Advocate when Jacob was twelve years old.
Well, there was plenty of conversation – plenty of conflict – surrounding David’s return. But not much substance and, even as time passes and David shares more information, not much understanding.
Jacob lives in his grandmother’s house, with his mother and his aunt (Caroline and Jeanette). These women are powerful forces in the novel, but neither so remarkable as their mother – Millicent McNeil.
As recognisable as Advocate is to residents of small-town Canada, so is Millicent McNeil as a character in families, both on and off the page.
“One of the chief characteristics of my grandmother’s personality is she could never admit to a mistake. She could act it, by being contrite in certain situations or mellowing for a time. But she’d never admit to one directly.”
For even though Millicent never admits to a mistake, she is often mistaken. “Current events according to my grandmother were a muddle of biblical prophecy and racial stereotype, which never failed to infuriate my more liberal aunt.”
And because the women live in close quarters, disagreements extend from national politics to personal parenting philsophies and infuse every subject between.
When Jake overhears a conversation between his mother and his grandmother after he has been discovered playing with girls’ toys, he does not grasp the intricacies of the matter. But he clearly understands that his mother has said “I’ll love him anyway” and his grandmother has pronounced that approach “irresponsible” and “ridiculous” and “dangerous”.
This is the largest part of what makes it difficult for Jake to return to Advocate. “This is the grandmother I remember. The grandmother of complaint and derision.”
Nonetheless, although a novel of extremes, the characters are also complex. There are positive aspects to Jake’s relationship with his grandmother and she does allow David to remain under her roof for more than just the visit for which she understood him to have returned – though, eventually, it becomes clear that he will not be leaving.
In the roundtable discussion at IFOA, Greer states ‘I think it’s bad luck to know the ending”, when he’s asked about his writing process. Nonetheless, one aspect of Advocate‘s ending was established from the outset.
Even twelve-year-old Jake observes that “my uncle David seemed to get seriously ill seriously fast”. At first, this is largely mysterious. And, throughout David’s decline, there is remarkably little discussion. Even the local doctor does not have much information.
“He said this was not something that he could just change, like an old pair of socks. There were no treatments. It wasn’t an aberration. Or an abomination. It just was.” (Because the bulk of the novel is viewed through the younger Jake’s eyes, the weight of David’s illness is not felt consistently throughout; he is ever-present, but he moves in- and out-of-view as Jake’s world widens while his family members become increasingly preoccupied by David’s caregiving.
The illness was difficult enough to bear, but the town’s prejudice inflicted an even deeper wound. Jake’s best friend is no longer allowed to play with him, not out of unkindness on his mother’s part, but out of fear. “To this day I do not know which was more damaging – the fear or the compassion.”
Still, loss and an overwhelming sense of inevitability infuses the novel. Grown-up Jake, returning to Advocate in response to the news that his grandmother is going to die soon, is still haunted by it. For many years, he has worked in Toronto, with men like his uncle, the man he could not save. “I never quite get over any client I lose. Each one leaves a fresh wound on my psyche, so that I am now a mass of scar tissue lf longing and regret. I take responsibility for each loss.” Today-Jake still asks: “What could I have done differently? How could I have saved them?”
The bulk of the town is fearful and intolerant. But just as the grandmother’s character is afforded some complexity, so is the town’s response to David’s illness. Three characters, who have been marginalized by the town in other ways (for their class and/or ethnicity), do offer the McNeil family some support. And there is some humour and much resilience in the novel.
“Advocate is a small town, and what happened here certainly happened elsewhere. But I am giving you a chance to redeem yourself.”
In the roundtable at IFOA, Darren Greer commented that there is no formula for redemption; it’s entirely personal.
But, for him, writing is an act of redemption, and writing Advocate, in particular, was one such act.
What have you read that has you thinking about redemption?
*Note: The Brenda Shaughnessy collection is Our Andromeda (2012): one of my favourites of this reading year.