Let me begin by saying that the cover of this novel is perfect.
Juliet, with her eyes closed: she could be anywhere, but in assembling an understanding of the world around her, images from her time in Nicaragua serve as a foundation.
And the vivid imagery: the combination of photographs — concretely preserving single images — and artwork — shaping and reworking and ordering.
A backdrop of revolutionary activity with a man moving in front, inhabiting an everyday moment, a sack over his shoulder, just as Juliet is unpacking her suitcase of memories.
J is for Just
The Friesen family is not a missionary family (missionaries “tell other people what to do”), but rather work for The Roots of Justice.
They plan to bring other Americans into Nicaragua to protest the Contra War, funded by Reagan who is battling the Sandinistas; they are fundamentally concerned with political deception and injustice.
But beyond the obvious concern with social and political justice, Carrie Snyder maintains a delicate balance in the family dynamics as well.
Juliet is clearly at the heart of the narrative, but even the perspectives of peripheral characters are prudently represented, even the perspectives of those who have caused pain and sorrow are discretely sketched.
Underlying the story is the sense that the author wants to represent her characters (including the countries of Canada and Nicaragua) justly. It appears effortless, but that kind of attention requires deliberate focus.
In Juliet’s perspective, and in the novel as a whole, a desire to weigh and measure and understand is pervasive throughout the work, literally and figuratively.
U is for Undaunted
The character of Juliet is resilient and quietly resolute.
Before the family travelled to Nicaragua, Juliet was the only girl in grade three who could climb to the top of the monkey bars and walk across.
In 1984, when the family arrives in the new country, Juliet is adaptable and spirited.
“Juliet can plop herself onto a blanket on the floor, stretch out, and — there, she’s settled.”
The narrative moves across time like Alice Munro’s collections (Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are? — titled The Beggar’s Maid overseas) with glimpses into Juliet’s experiences from the age of ten into adult life and, throughout, even in moments of vulnerability, Juliet is, ultimately, undaunted.
L is for Layered
All my favourite books are.
The development of Juliet’s understanding is painstakingly created. In the first story, “Rat”, she struggles to answer the questions of the woman with whom they are staying.
“‘I don’t know,’ she says finally, speaking the truth. But what she really doesn’t know is that there are questions grownups don’t want answered truthfully; grownups will accept a polite yes, but what they really want is confirmation of their suspicions, suspected moral failings guilelessly revealed, though this will bring the child no favour. Nothing will.”
As Juliet grows and observes, she gains new understanding.
Part of her remains innocent and vulnerable: “You can die of sadness? thinks Juliet; the idea encrusts a soft centre of pure terror.”
But in later stories, Juliet is able to decipher truths behind the stories that grownups tell.
“‘Good luck,’ says Simon, a phrase that means nothing within the context of this exchange. Grownups say things like this all the time: platitudes that do not apply, and other grownups accept the nothingness at the heart of what is being said, as if nonsense spoken out loud is always and ever more acceptable than silence.”
She can assemble meaning from fragments of overheard conversations and observations.
“Because this story collapses, crushed from beginning to end. Juliet has to steal everything she learns about what happens next. The grownups speak of it with a low solemnity that masks horror, shock; but they cannot pour it out.”
Every story introduces another layer to Juliet’s character, another layer to the question of how identity is constructed, accumulated and eroded (personally and nationally).
I is for Incisive
The Juliet Stories might appear to be a loose collection of events, in the way that memories are messy and unformed, but don’t be fooled; Carrie Snyder’s sentences are impeccably constructed, and the work as a whole is sharply focussed. (J,U,L,E, and T all support this, though I feel responsible for keeping the Incisive segment short!)
E is for Eloquent
As a whole, and in parts, Carrie Snyder’s novel-in-stories is vividly expressive, gently persuasive.
I re-read the first story three times, and I still love this part at the end:
“Imagine that one day everything in that suitcase will no longer exist. Everything that made its journey, lost to found, will be used up, discarded, replaced, forgotten. Into that someday, imagine Juliet. Imagine that she has found these other bags, ones she has no memory of packing. They seem to belong to her.
Imagine that she has gotten around to opening them.”
It’s an open invitation to the reader: imagine Juliet. (Or, don’t. Take the storyteller’s perspective: let her imagine for you. She does it so well. But if you engage with the work, it will be doubly rewarding.)
T is for Textured
Not only in terms of emphasizing the interwoven fibers and elements, between stories and across the work, but also with the sensual detail, The Juliet Stories is a rich and substantive volume.
Kids “rattle around the open truck bed like loose teeth”. They taste the “dull green metallic-flavoured sweetness” of their first ice cream in Nicaragua. There is the Fanta Roja discreetly belched in fumes, and the smell of burning rum in the Baked Alaska.
And sometimes a sentence like this strikes the reader in the heart: “His childhood gnawed by departures.”
(‘T’ was tough: I also wanted to go with telescopic, and talented, and terrific.)
The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder should be on all the prizelists this coming season.
It is like the puppy described later in the work: tough and nippy in parts, lively and new in others.
“Love for the animal rushes through Juliet for its newness, its capacity for destruction. She bends to the puppy’s snarl and snap. She gathers its surprising and lively weight into her arms, against her chest: fur tough, claws smooth, rolls of fat around its ribs. It nips her ear, and a tooth catches on the tiny silver ring Juliet wears in the lobe, and the wince of pain gleams.”
Give it a good home and read it now, so you can say that you have a copy without the awards stickers, because you knew it was inevitable.