Spoiler: I absolutely loved Wendy McGrath’s trilogy and it’s one of my 2020 standout reading experiences.

In the upcoming Winter issue of Herizons, you can read my review of Wendy McGrath’s final novel in her Edmonton trilogy, Broke City (2019). (Herizons is a Canadian feminist magazine, which I also recently spotted in the pages of Lennie Goodings’ 2020 memoir, A Bite of the Apple: Life with Books, Writers and Virago.)

Here’s what I couldn’t fit into that review, about the other two volumes—Santa Rosa (2011) and North East (2014)—the trilogy overall, and her collection of poetry, A Revision of Forward (2015), all published by NeWest Press. (I’m taking care not to repeat any of the content of my review.)

First, the trilogy begins and ends with the ritual of a Christmas cake. Yum, right? With the first volume, this is a nice touch. By the end of the final volume, it’s a flourish. Not in a satin-bow way. (Twee.) But in an all-is-right-with-the-world way. (Comfortable sigh.)

Each of the three volumes is short, just over a hundred pages. Not novellas, but three distinct and complex works with an overarching connectivity. That having been said, you could sit and read them—say, mid-morning, with a pot of tea—like someone could sit with a collection of poems. Their margins and line-spacing are generous, too, so that even the prose arranged into paragraphs, feels a little like poetry, despite the strong through-narrative.

Each book focuses on Christine, each volume’s Christine having a slightly wider experience of the world, as time unfolds. Readers watch her world expand through the expansion of her understanding.

In the beginning, what she notices are things within arm’s reach, and by the final volume, she is increasingly preoccupied by what exists beyond her grasp. Her experiences are reflected and refracted first in the most basic ways (colour, for instance—so much lovely and pointed use of colour). Gradually her understanding of the world develops and her observations are more nuanced.

There is a remarkable focus in young Christine, with the way that certain events take hold (which holds true for me, too, with specific childhood memories, that I’m sure were not ALL THAT when I actually was a child, but they’ve come to represent so much more, as time has passed and understanding has increased). These are simple events, so they’re credible as part of a young child’s experience, but also complex for adult readers, who note how and why certain events have the potential to fundamentally shape a child’s view of the world.

What made the trilogy such a powerful read for me, was the way that emotions are twinned with specific concrete observations, early in Santa Rosa. So that as echoes of them resurface throughout that volume, indeed throughout the series, they resonate with unexpected feeling.

I’m being vague because I loved discovering these reverberations as I read. And because they are so simple that, out of context, they might not sound as significant as they felt. But one aspect of her experience, which really struck me, was her experience as a young girl visiting her grandmother, and her observations about how different farm life was from city life. (From Mavis Gallant to Alice Munro, this urban versus rural theme has been a resurfacing matter of significance in the literature I love, because it’s a theme with roots in my personal experience too.)

Her misunderstandings, as she grows up, are gently humourous at times. And a myriad of pop culture references, from music to film, add a light touch. There are entertaining elements, even when family discord starts to squeal. And its Edmonton—prairie-city—setting somehow manages to be tremendously specific and still strike universal chords (ice-cream shops, pools, lunch counters).

From Santa Rosa:
… everything is better as it ages     takes on the taste of what is beside it what contains it what it touches the fruit in the cake would become the taste of brandy bark of cinnamon     black currants…

From North East:
She shaped it [the putty] again into a smooth ball thinking about how the putty could be so any things and she could make it into shapes that could maybe tell a story or keep a secret.

From Broke City:
She has kept and repeated the words spoken by the ghosts in this house in many ways.

From A Revision of Forward, a series of sorta mirror-like poems, which includes the artwork of printmaker Walter Jule, repetitive, fractal-ish images, these lines part of “Tempus Daylight Savings Time”:
…we wrap these songs
around our wrists
dance to the tune of lost time pieces
the strange music of each hour…

For a reflective and receptive reader, with a predilection for coming-of-age stories, and stories about memory and inheritance and truth and fear and changing landscapes (emotional and geographic), these novels are in-and-out-and-all-around satisfying.

There are some chilling moments, but overall these books—the novels and the poems—warm me to my core. I’ve often envied my reading friends who have a holiday ritual read (like A Christmas Carol, or a favourite fantasy series, or Tolkien, or Dylan Thomas): this could well be mine.

NOTE: For those who have expressed an interest in reading and owning these, the cover images link to the publisher’s pages. Enjoy!