Joan Barfoot’s Abra
McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978

Edition shown: Women’s Press (UK) 1999

The first Joan Barfoot novel that I read was Family News (1989), dating to a time when I only irregularly noted the books that I read in a coilbound exercise book, so I know that I sought out several of her books after that, but I don’t know which was the second. What I do remember clearly about Family News is that I was struck by how much of the novel felt recognizable to me, familiar and immediate. It was a story about the world I inhabited. I haven’t re-read it, but I still remember the experience of wanting to read more, that overpowering sense of recognition.

The book of hers that I did re-read was Critical Injuries (2001), which was longlisted for the Booker Prize and the re-read was so rewarding that, since, I’ve wanted to revisit both Luck (2005) and Exit Lines (2009); I read each of them in a couple of days because I was so caught up in the stories (by which I mean, mostly, in the characters, for they are the heart of Joan Barfoot’s novels for me) and I knew that I was breezing past choice lines and observations that would resonate even more strongly if I’d only slow down to take another pass, but I was compelled to read on without hesitation.

So, when I started to think of women novelists to read for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge, I immediately thought of her books and particularly wanted to read or re-read earlier works. Abra was her first novel, so what better place to start, particularly as my review here might be your introduction to this astute and talented fiction writer. You wouldn’t go wrong to start with one of her more recently published novels, but her earlier works are certainly worth the time.

Joan Barfoot’s Wikipedia page states that her work has been compared with Anne Tyler’s, Margaret Drabble’s, Fay Weldon’s, Carol Shields’ and Margaret Atwood’s; none of these comparisons surprise me as all of these authors figure on my list of favourites as well (although Fay Weldon to a lesser extent, but I did particularly enjoy her memoir, Auto da Fay, and I do understand the root of the comparison).

But I might also add Muriel Spark, thinking of her sharp eye and her deliberate choice of words (even more immediately apparent in Joan Barfoot’s Luck and Exit Lines). And perhaps I would add Barbara Pym, for Joan Barfoot’s ability to sketch vulnerability in female characters alongside strengths might, too easily, be overlooked in the world beyond the page. And there are also similarities to Alice Munro’s more recent stories, in which, occasionally, a single act of violence or loss precipitates reflection on a devastating — but fascinating — ripple effect.

Abra is titled Gaining Ground in the U.K. and, as such, listed under that title in the Good Fiction Guide (Ed. Jane Rogers), where it is described as a “remarkable first novel” which tells “the story of a woman [Abra] who leaves her perfectly ordinary husband and children to live alone in the wilderness, in an attempt to recover or discover her own identity. She is tracked down and called to account by her daughter.”

The summary in this fiction guide reinforces my decision to include it amongst my reading for the Women Unbound Challenge. “It is a feminist classic, a scrupulously, painfully honest exploration of female identity and motherhood, and provides a fascinating contrast to more recent novles about women leaving their families, such as Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years. All Barfoot’s novels delve into women’s lives….”

Here are some quotes if you’re still debating whether to add her to her book-shopping list. (There are plenty of reviews available on her website too.)

Here is a quote describing Abra’s early married years: “I was a character in a movie of my future, and it was a very pleasant movie and it was unconnected with myself. I had never thought. I find that extraordinary now, but not surprising.”

And here is another describing her early mothering years: “The memories of those years have a sameness, a furriness, as if nothing at all happened for days and months and years except for that routine. Could it really have been that way? Is it true that nothing happened?”

Here is a narrator looking back, reaching for the truth of a situation that is now in her past, reaching for understanding: “Somewhere in me was some deep-buried worm that gnawed its way through the hidden places of all the parts of my life, so gently, so delicately, that I could not tell, until the hidden places had all been eaten away and there was nothing left to root me to what I had or what I was.”

What a different novel it might have been if told in the present tense, but Abra has emerged from her vacuous state of being. Even years later, however, she finds herself forced to grapple with these past realities to construct and re-construct meaning with the sudden reappearance of her daughter.

She asks herself hard questions, questions she couldn’t even identify all those years before, let alone answer. “What was I thinking about then, I wonder? What was I feeling? Where was the “I” in all that? I was the lover, the giver, the doer, the mother, the wife, and that is where the “I” was. Which makes me sound martyred, only of course it wasn’t like that. I didn’t think of it that way; in fact I cannot remember that I thought, or felt, anything about myself, except that I loved these people and they depended on me.”

At first I was tempted to describe this as a quiet novel, but while there isn’t a lot of action in the car-chase/gun-shot sense of the word (okay, no, there’s actually none of that kind of action), it is a revolutionary novel, not a quiet novel.

Its revolutionary nature, however, is rooted in its exploration and challenging of women’s roles in society; Joan Barfoot‘s novels will strongly appeal to readers with an interest in psychological and relational fiction who find character-driven fiction as compelling as a car-chase on any given reading day.

Have you read one of her novels before?