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Pickle Me This

May 6, 2008

Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins

(Read my interview with Emily Perkins here.)

It was interesting, the many ways Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife complemented my recent reading of The Girl in Saskatoon. Both books about the impossibility of recreating life out of words, as well as the struggle to define a line between reality and otherwise. Which becomes doubly interesting in Perkins’ case, the recreating as fictional as its result.

Like Sharon Butala, Perkins’ Tom Stone writes in an attempt to put a life back together, his wife Ann’s: “If I could build her again using words, I would: starting at her long, painted feet and working up, shading in every cell and gap and space for breath until her pulse couldn’t help but kick back into life.”

But Tom is also at a disadvantage: “Some facts are known… Other things I can only take a stab at.” His wife had been particularly elusive, an Australian exile in London content to have long ago cast her past away. Part of what had attracted him– Ann’s mystery what he’d fallen for in the first place. That mystery part of the reason why, after Ann becomes pregnant with their first child, her increasingly strange behaviour is not confronted, ultimately leading to her tragic death.

“She wasn’t one of those women who hate their feet, who hate their bodies… Her body was open for viewing. It was the one of the ways she distracted you from what was inside her head.” And Tom has been happy to be distracted. Now that Ann isn’t there to distract him anymore, he writes to address her unknowability, the fact of which is infinitely underlined by her death. Toms lays out the “known facts” and takes stabs through speculation, drafting several versions of the events he still does not understand that led up to what fell apart between them.

Tom and Ann and what happened to them are singularly emblematic of nothing– this is how I know this is a good story. The endpapers now positively covered in my scrawl, as I noted key points, facts, ideas. All emblematic of nothing, I say. Emily Perkins understanding that nothing is so simple to profess to summation, and instead my notes and ideas are expansions– this is the kind of book that takes you there.

About what it was exactly that happened to Ann, because, like Tom, we get pieces of the puzzle but some are missing and certainly out of order. What Tom knows and what he doesn’t, his detachment disturbing at times, and his subtle address rendering him a complex and interesting first-person narrator. The story itself grappling with issues, but not so much as to make a statement. More so to consider: any illusion of safety in a society fraught with danger, such fraughtness intensified during pregnancy during which danger lurks ’round every corner. How once bad things happen in our lives, the limits of possibility are expanded. What is to be a man, to be a “guardian”, in such a place where any horrible thing is possible. How “space is what we crave and fear”, and it is in this context that we turn to one another.

I am being terribly general, and I could write about this book forever, but I will focus on one thread. Tom writes of his staid, middle class parents from whose existence he escaped into his own: they are “so certain of the parametres of their universe, where normality began and ended.” And whether by choice or fate, Ann and Tom do not inhabit such a comfortable place. Much of Novel About My Wife is about negotiating life within these unsure parametres: where family is distant, the streets are dangerous, God is dead, love is ephemeral, one need never grow up and childhoods can hold traumas so dark and unimaginable.

Perkins has created a puzzle of a puzzle. I read this book in anticipation of the ending the first time, and then the second time I pored over the text in search of clues. But both times I was entirely caught up in both this extraordinary story and its more ordinary concerns. Its exploration of love, intimacy, marriage and parenthood. Perkins’ characters demonstrating as much as anybody does: what it is to live in the world today, and how life happens. A fascinating story on a multitude of levels by an exciting and capable writer.

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