Despite the rather long title, the core idea of this novel is succinct: “Your truth is not more fucking true than my truth.”
Megan Gail Coles situates her story around a downtown restaurant in St. John’s Newfoundland. There, a handful of characters, who are navigating the daily grind, present their truths. The structure is simultaneously expansive and focussed: so many characters and so little time.
Readers spend time with these men and women in and out of this restaurant (but mostly out). It’s perfect for illustrating the power dynamics in everyday life.
Waiters and waitresses: they’re servers, right? There’s an inherent power dynamic. And a hierarchy within the staff and management, the age-old conflict between front- and back-of-house, and the sexism rampant in the food industry: a restaurant is the perfect scene to explore inequity.
Coles doesn’t illustrate the scenes in which the servers have an opportunity to be comfortable in their role. There’s no table with a happy couple that overtips their server at the end of the night because they are so content with their own relationship that their gratitude expresses itself in an increased gratuity. There’s no table set for the back- and front-of-house staff to share a meal together before or after the dinner shift.g.
One of my favourite scenes, an uncomfortable one, depicts a waitress at table-side, a full table too. A potentially lucrative group (large, moneyed, influential). Some interior aspects of the scene are spelled out in detail. Some are left to readers to assemble. The details are useful, but the unwritten parts – they are what made me seethe. (If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, any service industry, you can imagine.)
It’s not a comfortable scene. And neither are the other aspects of these characters’ lives. The ugliest bits are on display and unkindnesses echo and repeat (there is one notable exception, but that would be spoilery). Initially, the cast overwhelms, not for their numbers but for their natures.
At first, I struggled to align the names with their particular sorts of suffering; then, I allowed it to build, swell, until it was getting hard to breathe, and then the characters took shape. Here’s a glimpse of some of them.
There’s Amanda: “Amanda is going to give herself bad nerves worrying over shit she got no control over.”
And Calv: “And she says that’s his fault too. That he don’t do his share of worrying over anything. None of them do, so all the women is left to worry their own worries and the worries of every man nearby who is too busy playing some fake game in a fantasy world.”
Damian: “To be malleable was to be womanly. There was nothing worse than to be a woman or a child, be it girl or boy.”
And Iris, who apologizes: “And everyone resumes their places. Like it is nothing to be called a bitch. At your place of work. In front of all your coworkers. And your lover. And his wife.”
John: “What is he doing? He has made so many mistakes. He cannot connect them in his mind in a coherent order so as to understand.”
And Olive: “Silly half-something baygirl from a non-existent bay believes herself deserving of her own safe place.”
I’ve arranged them in alphabetical order so that you aren’t tempted to draw connections between them. Because the connections matter. But even though the novel unfolds in a single day in February, the connections are not spelled out. And, even when they are, events are presented from multiple perspectives, so the conclusions that readers might draw on one page will be overturned. (Remember that quotation at the top: everyone has their own truth.)
The power dynamics at the heart of this story are most easily represented in workplace scenarios; when these dynamics play out in personal relationships, the timbre intensifies along with the personal cost.
In general: “Broken hearts know not of dignified breaking.”
More specifically: “Is it still in love if the other person has blocked you on all their devices?”
Even more specifically (and a favourite of mine): “[She] wanted to go anywhere with Calv as his someone. The Canadian Tire in Mount Pearl was a desirable destination if she was with Calv. She would happily wander the aisles while he shopped for premium motor oil and a mixer for his mother.”
This, too, is relentless. There is very little happy-shopping-for-motor-oil-and-mixers. And although the rhythm of the prose is sometimes surprising, the Newfoundland syntax and audible cadence, the moment in which readers reorient themselves back to a kind of understanding is not enough to afford any recovery.
So why read this, why immerse yourself in imaginary suffering? Because “there are rare instances where this behavior is changed. The way behaviours changes. A little at a time. Someone draws a new line.”
Megan Gail Coles is drawing her line with this debut novel. It’s less likely to win the hearts of readers who have spent more time sitting at the table, being served. It’s more likely to appeal to readers who already devote a portion of their own daily lives to adjusting the balance in various relational power structures. And if that sentence sounds like a lot of work, that’s appropriate: because it takes a lot of work. A lot of new line-drawing.
SHADOW GILLER 2019: You can also follow the Shadow Giller Jury’s progress at Kevin from Canada’s site and read Naomi’s reviews at Consumed by Ink. Our reading schedule for this year’s shortlist is here, if you’d like to mark a particular title on your own calendar.