The image of wanting to put a child in a plastic baggie to preserve his freshness stuck under my skin instantly and irrevocably. So, you see, from her third novel, Cordelia Strube hooked me. Back in 1997. With Teaching Pigs to Sing.
But just as that protected child would (if one actually attempted this) slowly suffocate, there is a price to be paid for caring for the characters she brings to life on the page.
There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in her fiction, but sometimes an impenetrable darkness simmers beneath, and other times a wave of pain crashes over you, soaks you to the skin.
She makes no secret of it. Even the title of her latest serves as a warning of sorts: On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light. But not only a warning, but a promise, too.
Even an eleven-year-old’s existence can be consumed by the effort to find a balance between the positive and negative aspects of life.
Harriet is resourceful and rebelious, creative and manipulative, monstrous and vulnerable. She is eleven years old with some of the life experiences of someone twice her age, who knows just enough to realize that age doesn’t have much to do with it.
“Childproof caps defeat most of the seniors as they turn and turn in the same dull round. Harriet opens the caps for them, feeling herself turning and turning in the same dull round.”
One of the reasons that Harriet has such a tremendous appeal is her astute analysis of some startlingly complex situations.
Not only can she reset any technical devices which stump the senior citizens who reside in the Shangrila apartment building. But she can hone in on an emotional truth like a heat-seeking missile.
Perhaps because she has been immersed in and orbited by a number of dysfunctional relationships in her life, she is surprisingly capable of identifying the sore point (and either pressing or skirting it, depending on her motivation in a given moment).
“Lynne always excuses Gennedy by saying he didn’t ask for any of this, as though anybody asks for the shit that happens. The fact that Gennedy gets to live rent-free doesn’t enter into the equation, or that Irwin was already sick when they shacked up. It’s always what a good man Gennedy is because he sticks around.”
However, she is not simply a sassy, precocious near-child narrator. She falters and misjudges, as anyone would at eleven (or forty-two, or seventy-two).
For instance, Harriet understands that staying with her grandmother poses a risk because sometimes the stovetop isn’t attended to properly, but she doesn’t extrapolate. So, while Harriet keeps her eyes on the stovetop, she overlooks the fact that other details which could complicate Harriet’s situation could slip past her grandmother’s fragmented attention.
On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light reads quickly, scene swelling into scene, one exchange cascading into the next.
At the beginning of the novel, Harriet’s younger brother is six years old, and his way of speaking is as sharply defined as that of a single senior citizen in the building.
“Near the end of a puzzle, Irwin inevitably panics, convinced that certain pieces are missing. Some blue sky with a wisp of cloud, or a piece of tree, that should occupy a space can’t be found. Mrs. Chipchase tells him not to worry, that the piece must be somewhere, but anxiety tackles him and he falls down on all fours and scours the floor. Sometimes he goes so far as to empty a vacuum cleaner bag.”
Harriet does errands for the home-bound seniors, expanding the boundaries of their small worlds; she saves the quarters she earns to pay for a ticket to Algonquin Park, where she hopes to paint like Tom Tomson. Her artwork reflects the myriad of emotions she is experiencing (speaking of darkness) and the chaos she inhabits.
“Lynne slams her hand on the table. ‘Can you two stop bickering for one second?’
‘You two were bickering all morning,” Harriet says. “Are only adults allowed to bicker?'”
There are more shadows in this novel than appear at first glance; brief references to Harriet’s medication are one thing, her open despair about her brother’s health another. “Just because you’re related to someone doesn’t mean you don’t hate them.”
On the surface, it appears to be about stark states of being and not-being, light and darkness. But in fact, it’s just as much about the shadowy and half-lit areas between those states.
In the murk, the author makes a bold choice structurally, which resituates the reader on the margins of the story. The shadowy bits are exposed in an abrupt and stark change, and definitions and identities shift in the wake of extremes.
Those who look for explanations for this decision will be disappointed. Just as those who look for explanations in life are often stymied.
Other readers will be satisfied by readjusting the lens, peering to see all that there is to see in the light which remains.