Last Sunday, Marina Endicott appeared with Nicole Lundrigan, Riel Nason and Miriam Toews at a round table, moderated by the (talented) Susan G. Cole, at the 32nd annual International Festival of Authors.
Sometimes in a round table session, one author dominates. Sometimes the mix feels a little “off”, and the ensuing tension can lead to interesting places or else lead listeners to check the clock. And sometimes the moderator feels a little too present, so that each participant gets an equal share of talk-time, but it never settles into something comfortable.
But this round table worked as it should: like a big conversation.
There was agreement, there was “yes, and…” and “yes, but…”, there were gestures and nods (and other polite forms of pointing): one woman’s answer would spring from the last woman’s answer.
It did seem as though Marina Endicott shares a particular rapport with Miriam Toews (which is partly due to the fact that they were both on the jury for a literary prize earlier this year, for which each of them read each and every book, one-hundred-and-thirty-someodd-books), but this did not set them apart, but seemed to draw the other two women closer.
Reading The Little Shadows has some similarities to this experience.
The novel’s structure reflects the theme of three sisters trying to make a go of the Vaudeville circuit, under the guidance of their mother: many short numbers (i.e. flash fiction glimpses of the ensemble cast) within larger performance works (i.e. chapters) within acts (i.e. parts), within a career (i.e. the book).
There are a lot of voices, one often seeming to echo another (as when another perspective is offered on something just shown from a different angle).
Often things are observed from the margins; it’s left to the reader to assemble an understanding.
“The women did not do much talking, but some were beautiful, and they wore dazzling dresses and jewellery. Aurora stood by a massive mahogany pocket door, tucked in, her punch-glass held carefully out of the way. It was delicate crystal with thistles etched upon it, and she feared to break it.”
One could argue that Aurora’s role in the story is more prominent than that of the other sisters, and as the older sister, one could argue that’s her due, in exchange for having a great responsibility.
The other sisters’ perspectives are not, however, overlooked. And they are pulled closer to the heart of the narrative because the reader has more opportunity to witness the events from Flora’s (the mother’s) and Aurora’s viewpoints.
Each character plays an active role in the telling (it’s hard to imagine the mix without one of the elements, including the characters in other acts, who also cross venues and meet repeatedly with the Avery sisters).
Both their triumphs and their sadnesses contribute to their growth and development as artists, and although the book is scenic in nature, the arc of the girls’ careers gives the narrative a broader shape.
As the reader turns the pages, as the sisters’ experiences grow more complex and intense as they age, as the voices simultaneously blend and develop new edges, the performance takes on a new energy.
“She kept telling herself how it was her own choice and her own doing, but she was pure, plain miserable – and yet it could go into the song instead and be used. That was good. ”
It’s like a grand conversation: quietly fulfilling.
I know, I ‘ve said it before (about Pauline Holdstock’s Into the Heart of the Country), but I think the higher page count works against her. This isn’t necessarily fair because the sense of being fully immersed in another time is impressive (in both novels), but it’s November and people are already talking about holiday plans: readers’ attention spans aren’t what they once were.
Not only are Vaudeville songs integrated into the text (not in big bursts, but sprinkled across pages, leaving time for observations and ruminations between stanzas and couplets), but the very structure of the novel is scenic. The sisters’ lives are parcelled into brief appearances and acts onstage; the novel “does it in one”, but gives the reader a chance to breathe between every appearance.
In a review of the melodrama, the production is described as “not laden with excessive emotion or elaborate gestures, offering simplicity, grace and directness”. The same could be said of Marina Endicott’s language and style in The Little Shadows. Simplicity. Grace. Directness.
The sisters move from stage to stage, from town to town.
No matter the backdrop, the specifics of geography, the setting is loose, undefined.
The girls are rootless in the scenic sense; the family is the locale.
The sense of life-as-a-set-of-scenes won’t work for every reader, and this is not a book to be rushed; but readers who trusted in Marina Endicott’s storytelling in Good to a Fault will settle and follow the story of the Avery sisters with a similar sense of investment in something that breathes beyond the page.
The idea of an ensemble cast makes your reader’s heart beat faster. Plot=life (and that’s enough for you). You’re interested in performance (either in the public sense, or the kind of performing that we all do, when we’re trying to be something we’re not). At some point, you’ve wanted something “more”.