In today’s bookish chatter: a plateful of Rosemary Nixon’s Kalila and two snack-sized servings of Britt Holmström’s Leaving Berlin and George Elliot Clarke’s Red.
If Rosemary Nixon’s Kalila came with a cover summary, many readers would put the book aside.
And, yet, only a few pages into the story, the reader is immersed, engaged and helpless.
“My body aches as if I’d run for miles. Love happens to you. There’s nothing you can do. You fall headlong, chaotic.”
The reader meets Maggie at a moment when she is conscious of great love.
But, simultaneously, she is in crisis, painfully aware of the proximity of that love to the possibility of its loss.
There is a child; this the reader knows from these three sentences on the back of the book.
“You prepared. You prepared for a child to be born. You did not prepare for this.”
The child is Kalila. Beloved. But she is at risk.
(I debated whether to mention this aspect of the plot, but I think talk of babyloss is too often silenced, intensifying the struggle and loss that parents and families experience, whereas there are many, many Maggies and Brodies with tales to tell, tales of near-misses and tales of losses.)
Maggie and Brodie respond to the risk that Kalila faces in different ways, as they struggle to cope with the situation.
“Throughout dinner neither of you says a thing.
Your silence, and the rhythm of the lifting of your spoons.”
Brodie is a science teacher. “Physics governs the world you used to know. That world has shifted, tilted off its orbit. You have stumbled into a universe of uncertainty.”
Maggie tries to rewrite the story in her mind, make room for different endings. “Stories are meant to lead somewhere. To rising action. Climax. Closure. And they lived Happily Ever After. From its beginning, Kalila’s story, like a woolen toque, unraveling.”
People around them continue to live their own lives, helpless to change the situation, though even the most innocuous of comments can seem to have a bizarre relevance.
Maggie’s mother sees her optometrist about her macular degeneration. “‘Do you know what the doctor told me?’ my mother said, exasperation in her voice. ‘If you stare sideways long enough, things may grow clear.'”
Maggie and Brodie try to look sideways at things, seeking alternatives.
Rosemary Nixon, however, looks at the situation straight on.
Kalila is tightly drawn. The prose is exact. The chapters are often only two pages long, never lengthy. The point-of-view shifts, offering multiple perspectives from which the reader can assemble their own experience of the events. It is vivid and bold, but not distanced. It is heartful, but not indulgently sentimental.
Rosemary Nixon has produced a fine work of fiction in Kalila, and reading it makes the reader grateful that — in a world driven by the bottom-line, by the marketable and profitable — there are writers who recognize the vital importance of telling such a tale and publishers who recognize its true value.
(I might have been one of those readers, who’d have put this novel aside, if I’d known what it was about, but it’s not only worth reading, but worth seeking out; I’m already making a list of the reading friends for whom I want to buy copies.)
Kalila is nominated for the 2012 ReLit Award as a novel; Britt Holmström’s Leaving Berlin and George Elliot Clarke’s Red are nominated in the short fiction and poetry categories respectively.
I sampled the title story of Britt Holmström’s collection; “Leaving Berlin” is the first of nine stories, each about 30 pages in length, preceded by an epigraph from Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries.
Travelling across Europe in the winter of 1970 with her live-in boyfriend, the narrator is tense and unhappy; she has discovered “how difficult it is to function when you’ve become invalid”. The atmosphere is mirrored in the political animosity between the Berlins, and this is intensified by Henry’s habit of pissing off cab drivers and guards, looking more like a bandito than a “basically honest, if dysfunctional, Canadian composer/musician”. He accuses the narrator of deliberately trying to annoy him (and in a moment of wry humour she observes silently that she does not need to try). The author succinctly captures the claustrophobic feel of the six-month-long exploration in dialogue, inner ruminations, and scenic sketches, whether in a night club, the Pension, or the ape house at the zoo.
“The wall was a looming threat the night we crossed into East Berlin from the neon jungle of the West. The train hurried headlong into stark emptiness, leaving behind the human zoo of masturbating dwarves and satin transvestites. On the other side of the wall it was as if everybody had fled long ago.”
I sampled thirteen poems in George Elliott Clarke’s Red. It is part of a cycle of ‘colouring’ books, following Blue (2001) and Black (2006), wherein he tries “various forms” and will “strike different (rhetorical) poses”.
The breadth of titles hints at the diversity of the collection’s styles and content: from “The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus” to “James Brown’s Rhetoric” to “Love Elegy Sonnet” to “”Red Tape”. Whether writing in classical forms or reflecting the influence of more recent musicians and poets, whether writing about the pre-Christian dissection of sexuality in Imperial Rome or commenting on the media coverage of the Persian Gulf War, whether inspired by an imagined interview between James Baldwin and Malcolm X or by Alma Duncan’s painting Young Black Girl (1940) or by a Kahlúa bottle label, George Elliott Clarke writes with a passionate voice that makes the reader want to squeeze every bit of life from every single moment.
“Red is the red-white-and-blue and the red-black-and-green
Red is Aboriginal and African and Chinese and Cuban and Nova Scotian
Red is George & Rue, Illuminated Verses, Trudeau: Long March/Shining Past Blues and Bliss, I & I, and Red —
Poetry in the blood.” (“Other Angles”)
This week’s Weekend Sampler, inspired by this year’s ReLit Awards, includes a plateful of Kalila (Goose Lane Editions), a short story from Britt Holmström’s Leaving Berlin (Thistledown Press) and poems from George Elliot Clarke’s Red (Gaspereau Press).