Joan Barfoot’s Dancing in the Dark
Macmillan, 1982
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When I re-read Abra earlier this month, I mentioned that it felt both quiet and revolutionary at the same time. The narrator’s self-discovery is relayed through the filter of memory, and the bulk of the action is internal, but the novel’s style affords the narrative a curious urgency.

Abra is mentally re-ordering her life, reconsidering the dynamics of familial relationships, which have evolved even in her absence, in the wake of her decision to leave her family behind for another kind of life.

In Joan Barfoot’s second novel, Dancing in the Dark, Edna, too, is adjusting to life as a single woman; she, like Abra, was married once, but now she’s not.

Like Abra, when the reader meets Edna she is alone. The tone, the style, the point-of-view: there are some immediate similiarities to the earlier work. Except there’s something starkly different about Abra’s situation.

“It is precisely the right amount of space. This much I can manage, most days,” Edna says, speaking of the three feet beyond her bed, where she sits with her notebook. We learn of her circumstances through her notebook, although even he recognizes that the value of this information is debatable, its reliability something to question, its relationship to truth inherently suspect:

“What good are pages and pages of neat, precise letters spiralling into tidy words and paragraphs, if they only look good? Underneath it is a mess.”

And yes, it’s clear that there is something amiss underneath. Edna’s existence is limited in an unnatural way.

Edna’s husband Harry believed that novels were less valuable than biographies and business reports and Edna, too, is questioning their worth, even whilst scribbling in her notebook. Maybe, she thinks, “my books were false and fairy tales. They did seem hopeful, showed possibilities of happy endings, and maybe it was wrong of me to believe in them.”

Yes, something has gone wrong, and this novel begins after Edna has missed her chance of a hopeful, happy ending. “And I wonder what is flawed beneath the smooth flesh, where is the piece that is cramped, distorted, and unlinked?”

Edna is asking a lot of questions. Big ones like that one. Like “Is knowledge more fair than faith? More valuable? Oh, God would have done better to make me Eve than the Eve He made. I would not have chosen knowledge over peace.”

And perhaps in the hands of another novelist, this could be dry and philosophical stuff, but in the context of Edna’s characterization and her situation, the reader can’t help but read on.

Readers will immediately recognize the relevance of this kind of questioning; if readers haven’t posed these kinds of questions themselves, they’ve likely followed the process in friends’ or relatives’ experiences, either in or out of a space confined as Edna’s is, and the novel’s universal themes will reward those who appreciate peculiarly-gripping pace of psychologically-driven narratives.

What makes this particular novel such a satisfying read for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge, however, is the consideration of gender roles in western society. Bringing the novels of writers like Carol Shields and Marina Endicott to mind, Edna says, just pages into her story: “I wanted badly to do the right thing. I wanted so badly to be good.”

Also of interest in reading through a feminist lens, and recalling the works of Alice Munro and Ann-Marie MacDonald, Edna observes:

“The proper pattern of a life, how it should be led, this knowledge was absorbed. One was a girl and so inevitably would become a woman and the way to be followed was well laid out and obvious.”

Joan Barfoot has published eleven novels and, as with the works of Margaret Atwood, even her earlier works are satisfying reads indeed.

Have you gone exploring in a favoured author’s backlist lately? Were you pleased with what you found there?