The Birthday Lunch is the sort of novel in which a woman stands at a casement window and drinks a cup of tea, enjoying a private view of a cherry tree and an herb garden.
It is a “quiet novel” and, yet, a story which is ultimately about the primary importance of words.
(As Margaret Atwood writes: “A word after a word after a word is power.” And Lee Maracle’s recent interview with Shelagh Rogers on “The Next Chapter” considers this at some length, with her novel Celia’s Song putting this principle to work too.)
It feels as though each word has been selected and polished before being placed into its sentence.
Despite this sense of orderliness and propriety, the core of the novel is the extraordinary, a collision with the unexpected.
As carefully as one might construct one’s existence, a single event can throw everything off kilter.
One of the characters in the story, Laverne, has taken pains to recreate a particular painting she saw in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
She has systematically reconstructed the rooms in “Woman and Child in an Interior”, “functional” and “spare” rooms that “welcomed the light”, so that she can live in a painting. From tiles to pillows, Laverne creates a haven in the home she shares with her sister, Lily.
Laverne’s retreat takes on a peculiar significance because of the tension between her and Lily’s husband; in fact, Hal and Lily are responsible for half the expenses accumulated for the renovation, but Laverne never invites Hal to see these rooms. (Lily tells him that he would only think them “dreary” and “strange” anyhow.)
It is a point of contention, but given the tension in their relationship, it is a thin layer of the conflict which recedes in importance against the backdrop of their more immediate concerns, for instance, with whom (and how) Lily will be spending her birthday.
Symbolically, however, this painting plays out for readers throughout the novel in many ways. Most obviously, the novel mirrors the painting’s attention to detail, the possibility of various perspectives (one could peer into this space from more than one direction), and a relationship being of primary importance against an uncluttered background.
(Perhaps even more obviously, the painting appears inside the backflap of the novel, and a detail from it appears inside the front flap: the inner elements of the book design by Terri Nimmo are beautiful, beyond the stock photographs of the cake and cherries.)
Pieter de Hooch’s artwork and the artist’s preoccupations impact the novel more subtly as well. For instance, Hal is concerned with the capacity of next-door neighbours to see into a particular window, if the curtains are not drawn, with what they might see (and, in turn, with what they see of the neighbours). Given the importance of the light cast by the windows in this painting, readers cannot pass by a window in Joan Clark’s novel without taking another look.
This particular aspect of the novel reminds me of Carol Shields’ short story, “Windows”, and more generally, The Birthday Lunch resonates with novels like Carol Shields’ Unless and Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault, in which ordinary people bear extraordinary burdens and, along the way, consider the question of being “good-ish”.
Even the supporting characters evoke these preoccupations. In fact, readers learn a lot about Corrie Spears, but even more about the main characters in the novel, from her perspective. (The name Corrie immediately recalls the Alice Munro story named for its heroine of that name, and there is something about her matter-of-fact maner and forthright spirit which seems to fit here too.)
And Corrie, too, embodies the importance of words, insisting on speaking out in her way (by signing an affidavit stipulating the details about what she has witnessed).
The multiple perspectives in the novel underscore the idea that each of us has their own version of narrative truth The lens though which we view the world informs every word we speak (and every act of silence).
At an accident scene, for instance, there is great attention paid to point-of-view. Some details are obscured from particular vantage points, others clearly observed, and timing — the matter of arrivals and departures – is pivotal too.
Sometimes what is not said is just as important as what is said. Hal, for instance, displays his sensitivity to the dynamics in relationships to readers, in a scene in which he recognizes a business opportunity, but he determines that that would be best shelved for a time, revisited some other day. He remains quiet. (Which is doubly interesting because Corrie observes that Hal is oblivious to how one-sided his conversations with Corrie are.)
Lily and Hal’s daughter, Claudia, too, remains silent at a memorable juncture in this story, but this is not intentional. She has intended to relay one particular piece of information to her married lover but realizes, after their phone call has ended, that the one thing she had intended to share remains unspoken. Arguably, however, she did not truly want to break that silence.
In speaking about her novel An Audience of Chairs, Joan Clark states: “One of the things I was interested in was exploring the idea of family pride, which was abundant in my family.” It may be that the impulse to remain silent which impacts The Birthday Lunch is rooted here, too.
What each of us chooses to express, and how and when we choose to express it: this is at the heart of Joan Clark’s The Birthday Lunch.
She has written more than a dozen books (for young adults and adults), been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, received the Marian Engel Award, and was named to the Order of Canada. Yet, this is the first of her novels that I have read. What a tremendous pleasure.
Companion Reads: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (2013) and Joan Thomas’ The Opening Sky (2014)