Angie Adbou handles multiple narrative voices very well. Readers familiar with her earlier novels, The Bone Cage (2008) and The Canterbury Trail (2011) will know this, having inhabited narratives from varying perspectives. They will also know (as will readers of her 2006 collection of short stories, Anything Boys Can Do) that she embraces the sweat and grit of a situation.
Readers who simply see the cover of Between will understand that this is a story of bits and pieces; they once fit together, but now the narrative is preoccupied with the fractures and slivers, mismatches and gaps. Between chronicles the events leading up to — and following — the break and, yes, all the parts between.
Whether loyal or new readers, it’s clear that Angie Abdou’s novel will be uncomfortable reading.
And, yet, its pacing bears a resemblance to the storytelling of Russell Wangersky (who also has an interest in the overooked and untold, but expresses it in plot as much as character) and Cordelia Strube (particularly her ability to intertwine tragedy and comedy while always keeping focus on characterization). Similarly, Between should be a quiet story by nature, but it demands attention every step of the way.
Told in two voices, Vero’s and Ligaya’s, Between chronicles the experiences of two women, who experience varying degrees of constraint in their lives, who feel their powerlessness in different but equally devastating ways, as they care for children and move through the demands of everyday life.
The stuff of the story is fascinating. The women’s ordinary experiences are shared in matter-of-fact prose, which is sometimes sassy and sometimes sharp (sometimes both), and readers are pulled into uncomfortable places, literally and figuratively cramped.
Ligaya is sleeping in a closet when we meet her; Vero is hiding in one, soon after we meet her.
“With the door shut, Vero feels better. A closet of one’s own. That’s all she needed. She takes another long swig from the bottle.”
The female experience is central to Angie Abdou’s novel, in a quietly determined way. She doesn’t pencil in Virginia Woolf’s name, but the reference is there for those who have dreamed of a room of one’s own (and, often, settled for closets).
This is not uncomplicated. The women in this novel have varying degrees of privilege and capacity.
“The woman beside him wears a familiar vacant expression. Vero spends enough time with new mothers that she hardly notices. They’ve all left their brains at home in the dryers. They’re bumping around in there like shoes fluffing up the down duvets.”
They are imperfect, they are credible. Sometimes they care, sometimes they do not.
“Her capacity for denial is astonishing, matched only by her capacity for rationalization. She knows this. Again, she doesn’t care.”
Sometimes they are likeable, sometimes not (as are we all).
Vero’s privilege allows her the luxury of hiring a nanny. “Things are looking up for the Sprucedale Nanton-Schoemans. We’ll think back to this night as the moment when things really turned around for us.” Ironically, this moment upon which fortunes turn, is also a moment of great potential for the nanny hired, Ligaya.
But Ligaya’s challenges are eased and exacerabated by this change in fortune. She no longer sleeps in a closet, but she is overwhelmed by the need to acclimatize. “Even the children in this family have twelve mouths. Ligaya will need twenty-four ears to keep up.”
The plot is surprisingly gripping, as each woman struggles with changes she does not feel equipped to handle. The balance shifts quickly, as each is pressed to be someone other than she has imagined herself to be.
For Ligaya, this plays out in the workplace, for Vero this is true, too, but the novel’s most memorable scenes of her identity stretching and recoiling roll out while she is on vacation, in the context of her personal (i.e. no paycheque visible) relationships.
“Vero pays Lili, of course, there is that, but who isn’t paid? One way or another. Life: it’s all a barter system.”
Ultimately, the power of Between lies in its ability to identify and create this barter system on the page, so delicately and smartly that readers do not realize that they are reading a treatise on value until the car is in gear and rolling.
What seemed like an innocent conversation between Ligaya and the children, about whether a seal is a predator or prey, is a layered reminder that we all inhabit the food-chain, some of us in more complicated roles than others.
For of course the whale is a predator; that’s easy, Ligaya explains. But the seal is harder to answer, because to the whale the seal is prey, but to the fish, the seal is predator.
Some women are eaten by whales, others eat fish; Ligaya and Vero are shapeshifters, and the questions that Angie Abdou asks in Between are the best kind: the kind that make you want to talk about opposites both being true, about the contradiction of finding power or fragility where one expected to find the other.
Charlotte Gray’s readers also count on her ability to find one story where another was expected. She makes history come off the page whether writing about women exploring the Klondike or a pair of literary sisters; she values the stories less commonly told in history.
This is true, too, in The Massey Murder; rather than adopt the comfortable perspective of a wealthy and privileged man in late nineteenth-century Toronto, she presents the perspective of his maid, who was accused of murdering her employer.
“In the bourgeois world of 1915, the Carrie Davieses barely merited a glance, let alone a footnote in history. Women like her formed the silent army that kept households humming, and yet remained almost invisible to many of its employers. Carrie’s life was particularly exhausting because she was Bert and Rhoda Massey’s only servant. They couldn’t afford the army of cooks, butlers, parlour maids, and lady’s maids that kept up the houses of richer Masseys. Carrie had to do everything, during days that began at six in the morning and might not finish until well after 9 p.m.”
There is much discussion of related historical material: the invocation of and imposition of the death penalty, the research gathered by Bertillon to develop a criminal identification scheme, the significance of an “At Home” event, the description of the “Riverdale Bastille”, the Massey monument in Mount Pleasant cemetery and the mansion on Jarvis Street in Toronto, reportage on military movements overseas, the popularity of detective fiction, and the role of the jury in courtrooms of the day.
But for readers with a passion for women’s history, the details about Carrie Davies’ life as a female servant and gender roles and expectations are most interesting.
“Servants are everywhere and nowhere in history. Carrie and women like her worked too hard to have any energy left for writing diaries or letters, and if any of them did manage to scribble down something, it has probably been lost.”
Carrie’s history is constructed through the experiences of other women in similar roles and positions, with heavy reliance upon the court transcripts and the journalism of the day.
“What really alarmed them was the idea that a ‘harmless’ backstairs seduction led to Bert’s death. Moreover, it looked as though the girl had planned the death: this wasn’t a crime committed in the heat of a struggle. But Bert’s relatives didn’t appreciate the salacious gossip that was starting to spread. The first step towards suppressing the story was burying the corpse. Step two was promoting the Massey version of the facts.”
Carrie did not have power; the Massey family did have power. And, yet, there is a kind of power afforded to women, even in areas traditionally reserved for men.
“But there was one arena in which female reporters could monopolize a front-page story: the Toronto Women’s Court. Thanks to the Women’s Court ban on male onlookers, only women were welcome in the court’s press box.”
The history of the Women’s Court and women reporters is directly relevant to Carrie Davies’ case, but Charlotte Gray’s writing notes mention specific sources for further reading on the topic.
“There are two excellent books about the feisty women reporters in Toronto newsrooms: Marjory Lang’s Women Who Made the News: Female Journalists in Canada 1880–1945 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999) and Linda Kay’s The Sweet Sixteen: The Journey That Inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).”
She updates readers on these matters too, revealing that even the early feminists eventually stopped advocating for special legal protections for women.”Once women had the vote, Toronto’s Women’s Court was increasingly regarded as an anachronism: it was disbanded in 1934. But some of the emotions and concerns that Carrie’s case aroused flowed on through the twentieth century, as women entered universities, professions, and politics, and lobbied for equality.”
Who holds power in any given relationship? How does that power manifest? How quickly can the balance shift? And is that shift always a desirable outcome? These are timeless questions, whether posed in fiction or non-fiction.
The Massey Murder pulls a story from the headlines, but affords Charlotte Gray the opportunity to explore gender and social justice issues in an inviting and engaging style: so entertaining.
Angie Abdou’s Between presents the intricacies of two women’s relationships in such a nuanced and layered story that it reads like a page-turner but could be used as a textbook in economics and gender studies classes: so smart.