Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage
NeWest Press, 2007

Chlorine and sweat: Angie Abdou’s debut novel is soaked.

And if you can’t abide the smell of either, you might not want to cozy up to the tale of Sadie and Digger.

These two are splashing their way to the top, elite athletes with the Olympics in their sights: Sadie for swimming, Digger for wrestling.

You might think you don’t want to read about the pool and the mat, but although Angie Abdou’s novel plays out in athletics, its theme is, more broadly, about what people do when they realize that one aspect of their lives has overshadowed nearly everything else.

What happens when you become so focussed on what you do that you begin to forget who you are without that all-encompassing pursuit?

Sadie gets a jolt when her grandmother becomes suddenly ill and her parents call Sadie’s coach rather than call her, and they all agree to tell her after the day’s practice, rather than interrupt the flow of her training.

What happens when a single goal obliterates the rest of your identity? And, when it comes to sport, there is another layer to this question. Sadie wonders: “At  twenty-six, a niggling question has entered the back of her mind: what happens when it’s over?” Even if she did make it to the Olympics, even if she did take home a medal: then what?

Digger is wrestling (sorry) with the same questions. He “tastes metallic blood and feels as though his teeth are floating. He runs his tongue around the inside of his mouth and spits. Is this the taste of relief?” After so many years of striving for something single-mindedly, it’s almost as difficult to deal with success as it is to accept failure. And the ultimate question — then what? — remains.

When Sadie’s grandmother wakes in hospital, she remarks that she has had a good life, a long life. “But this old bone cage of mine has done all it can for me.”

It’s ironic that she, a woman in her 80s, is uttering a phrase that many top athletes, like Sadie and Digger, might as easily say, in their 20s, with ‘career’ substituted for ‘life’: a good career, a long career (given the average age of athletes in their fields), but their bone cages giving out.

Angie Abdou’s novel is set not only in the pool and on the mat, but in a world each reader will recognize: a world in which it’s difficult to balance the intensity of the pursuit with the desired (or dreaded) outcome.  It’s a story that will be of interest to anyone who hasn’t been sure just what to hope for.

My Canada Reads Responses (please see CBC Canada Reads for the event’s details):
Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans JAN29 (CBC pitch is here)
Carol Shields’ Unless JAN31 (CBC pitch is here)
Ami McKay’s The Birth House FEB2 (CBC pitch is here)
Jeff Lemire’s Essex County FEB4 (CBC pitch is here)
Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage (above) (CBC pitch is here)