Here’s the part where I put aside Lauren Carter’s This Has Nothing to Do With You, this passage about Melony Barrett:

“I couldn’t have known what would be waiting when I woke up, that I’d spent the night on the rapidly diminishing surface of my childhood, that last patch of solid ground.”

When I started to read this novel last autumn, I found this passage and knew I wanted to devote a certain kind of attention to this story.

I don’t recall what other books where in my stack at the time, but they didn’t suit this backward-glance perspective on childhood, with complex realizations reduced to the simplest terms, and a dedication to moments of transition and transformation.

When I returned to Lauren Carter’s novel this spring, the timing was perfect. (I’ve reviewed it for The Temz Review, if you’d like to read more about it.)

And it only made me want to read more. Carter’s first book was a collection of poetry. Her prose isn’t the sort where themes and vocabulary make you suspect she’s a poet. But the exactness and the clarity of construction at the sentence level hints around it.

Lichen Bright (2005), her first collection, opens with an epigraph from Anne Michaels’ “Memorium”:

“Memory wraps us
like the shell wraps the sea.
Nothing to carry,
some stones to fill our pockets,
to give weight to have we have.”

Michaels’ preoccupation with loss and love, remembrance and absence, are all evident in Carter’s poems too.

In “Insomnia”, we have: “the other side of the bed / is empty, nothing / but a salt stain / from the wake / of your skin.” And, in “Enabler”, “like a button / i slip you loose, / make a hole in my life”.

In Following Sea (2019), Carter acknowledges the contribution made by the staff and resources of archival repositories (mostly in Bruce and Grey counties, northern Lake Huron and Georgian Bay country) in her efforts to imagine the experiences of her settler ancestors, who called Manitoulin Island home.

These poems read like narrative and move readers through time, via “Home” in 1854, with “a mark / on the map, the ink / of vast water / spotted by stains”. And “Swamp Fire” in 1862, with “Their house, a fallen / effort, its embers soldering / her leaden skirts.”

It’s not all that different a process, from Melony trying to understand the decisions and relationships in her life in This Has Nothing to Do With You, to the poet looking backwards and trying to see the journeys that have led from past to present. How the road might turn in the future, based on how we understand what’s come before.

“I have nothing to give
you, history. Only words
on pages that might
or might not rot.”

Lauren Carter’s first novel, Swarm (2013), is a dystopian story. The narrative alternates between times and places: City and Island, Past and Present.

In the city: “Spindles and bits of gingerbread trim hung like loose teeth. By now everyone knows about how quickly things can fall apart, but that was my first real glimpse of the unravelling.”

On the island: “We are never everything that we think we are. Even in a single lifetime, we are capable of shifts as huge as history. But that doesn’t mean that everything works out. Some time I will tell you the story of the Titanic, an ocean liner they said couldn’t sink and it did. Sucked more than two miles down, to the bottom of the sea.”

The question of mortality is inescapable:

“In Tibet, Thomson once told me, the people brought their dead into the mountains and let animals and vultures pick apart the corpses. A sky burial, he called it. He’d told me that at a time when we hadn’t thought so much about dying. Or I hadn’t. It sounded beautiful, but the body on the beach reminded me of the worst things about death. How still we become. How empty. A vessel, drifting out of range, into invisibility.”

The persistence of watery images, of depth and pressure, of stillness and sinking—it’s haunting. The characterization is relentless. There were many times that I simply wanted to stop reading, to stop caring. But, like the characters in Swarm, I kept moving forward.

  I gestured behind us. “Will we rebuild?”
It was what I was holding on to: a montage of clips, like in the movies, the four of us working together, making something meaningful. Scrubbing floors. Hammering walls into place. Gathering the bees. Dropping into bed at night, exhausted but content. A family. A solid footing that didn’t require impossible demands.

As the chapters accumulate, the gap between past and present narrows. Readers who were once concerned with ideas about the nature of the collapse, the mechanics of trade and survival which remain, gradually realize that a specific event occurred which shifted the scene permanently from City to Island. That becomes the pressing question.

“I couldn’t believe he knew it all. I couldn’t believe he had never said anything. That we had simply gone on, the whole mess shoved deep inside each of us like the contents of a sunken ship. You, a diver, prodding the weakening hold.”

The sustained thematic work, the attention-to-detail with the characterization, the delicate balance between known and unknown: Lauren Carter is exacting and perceptive. She tells demanding and rewarding stories. Her latest, This Has Nothing to do With You, is one of my favourite reads for 2020. And I’m not the only one who counts it a favourite; it won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction too.