As was the case with her first novel, Gilaine Mitchell’s follow-up is set in the small town of Stirling.
One of the characters in Film Society, Del, works at the Sears Catalogue Store but aspires to be a documentary-film maker, and she receives some advice about the ‘real world’: “Sometimes nothing happens … But sometimes, something remarkable happens.”
Gilaine Mitchell seeks both to capture the ordinary and to point out the remarkable elements in it.
Stirling feels immediately recognizable to me; I grew up in an ordinary small town much like it. This is how it is described in The Breaking Words.:
“A quaint old town that can even lay claim to great theatre, now that the building has been restored and attracts across and directors from Toronto and Stratford. It’s a simple enough town with a few restaurants, Stedman’s department store, speciality shops, and five churches as well as a Jehovah’s Witness Hall, all of them spread along the main streets. There are apartment buildings in the west end, and one behind the liquor store in the north end, not far from the legion and the lumberyard. The tallest structure is the water tower, painted light green, which is near the cemetery.”
And if I still lived there, I would likely still think of the department store as Stedmans long after it had become something else.
That’s where Natha is at in her life; the Stedman’s isn’t a Stedman’s anymore and the people she knew when she was younger are changed as well.
But in the interim, the changes have gone largely unnoticed. Either in a quiet, slippery way. Or in a more deliberate – push it into a dark recess of memory – way.
“It’s the mind that separates us, makes one person different from the next. The body is only the carrier, the wheels on which our thoughts travel.”
The action in The Breaking Words is wholly interior; what makes one character different form the next are their thoughts. Often these are shared indirectly with readers, but there are generous swaths of dialogue, which also inform readers and quicken the pace of the novel.
“It feels off track to be reading this, her mind taking over, linking to other thoughts, breaking the flow of where she was going, loosening her from her own life. That’s the way it was when she was young reading Plath and Woolf and Nin in Jules’s house, immersed in literary lives in other worlds while she was living with a drunk mother and fucking the bookstore owner in a small, rural town.”
Natha is not that young woman anymore, but that person still lingers in her mind. And although many years beyond her Plath-loving phase, she realizes that she still has to figure out some things. Things which she thought she would have figured out by now.
‘She could write now, make a journal entry if she had a journal. Saturday, June seventh. Too hard to be in a bad mood when the lilacs are in bloom and your husband, happy in post-coital bliss with someone else, is cleaning the windows and leaving you alone to be in whatever mood you’re in. If only you could decide what mood that is. Not gritty enough, poetic enough, not interesting. Always this search for words, the energy of Plath and Nin, but everything comes out of her in plain, dull language and she has always envied those who could record the words as though their lives depended on doing so. To be so interested in your own life, how is that done?”
What she needs to do is become interested in her own life once more. But that is tricky. Because things haven’t turned out as she planned.
Natha didn’t imagine that her future self would be in a good mood because her husband was happy in post-coital bliss with someone else. There are a lot of aspects of her life which require compromise, facts which require smothering of emotions that she does not want to acknowledge.
The novel opens with a discussion of financial adultery, a division of her earnings which she keeps secret from her husband, and The Breaking Words is filled with this kind of duplicity. However, as the story progresses, and Natha’s determination grows, she seeks to change the scenery in her life.
“It would be a silent film, Natha thinks as she remembers the previous summer as a series of long, hot days, sifting into one another, a blanket of the unknown sheathing her, protecting her, demanding that she let go. The woman in her head has all but disappeared; she hadn’t heard her so much as experienced her as a memory. Natha no longer feels there is something outside of herself, something narrating her steps, lending meaning to the objects in her house.”
Gilaine Mitchell’s narrative is uncluttered stylistically. Sensory and scenic detail is conveyed in a matter-of-fact manner. “First, there is the conversation and the drinks. Then there is the bed. The smells. The sounds.” This affords the opportunity to explore intimate encounters and dysfunctional relationships without burdening the prose with either excess or sentimentality.
Like the town of Stirling, Natha’s realizations are likely familiar to many mid-life readers, who will respond with reconition and understanding to the quiet but profound – and, yes, remarkable – changes that she makes in her ordinary life.