January 18, 2010
Kiss the Joy as it Flies by Sheree Fitch
Two and half days of my last week were spent in the absolute bliss of reading Sheree Fitch’s first novel Kiss the Joy as it Flies (shortlisted for the 2009 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour). I’d previously only read Fitch’s wonderful children’s book Kisses Kisses Baby-O!, but love it so much that when I discovered Fitch had written a novel for adult readers, I had to read it. Though I began reading with a degree of uncertainty: the story of Mercy Beth Fanjoy, who receives a troubling medical prognosis and decides to stage a clear-out of her messy life in the time she has left. This sort of formula could go either way, and very quickly in, I was pleased to find Fitch had gone in the right one, with sprightly prose and a narrative packing a punch. The novel is wonderfully original, although if pressed, I’d have to call it as Fannie Flagg meets Miriam Toews.
In Kiss the Joy as it Flies, it’s not so much plot that accelerates as the language itself operating on sheer gumption, and the spirit of Mercy Fanjoy picking up speed as she comes into her own. Though things happen– people die, hopes are dashed, love is born, battles are fought, illusions are shattered, triumphs are won, and lessons learned. The stuff of life with a wacky cast of characters who are constructed as types– religious zealot mother, loyal friend, hippie daughter, enigmatic dead father, sex god– but each of them excellently crafted with the most remarkable ability to surprise you.
Mercy Fanjoy is wholly embodied by Fitch’s prose. The fact of the disease that lurks inside her, and her buxomness, and her sexuality, and when she expresses milk from her engorged breasts into the bathtub during a flashback in which she remembers her teenaged, single-mothered, basement-apartmented self. Two decades on, Mercy has come a long way– she’s reconciled with her difficult mother, earned a university degree, she pens her own column in the Odell Observer, has raised her daughter, bought her own house, teaches a creative writing course, and has maintained a lifelong relationship with her best friend Lulu. She still holds a grudge against horrible Teeny Gaudet (who has since gone onto fame as bestselling author of the “Burt the Burping Bear” series of children’s books), but you can’t win them all.
Over the week she seeks to put her life in order, Mercy finds herself becoming unhinged, and emerging from a rut she’s been stuck in too long. In the end, just about everybody in her life surprises her, but she manages to shock them right back, tenfold. And while it’s raw, we’ll get our hearts warmed, and Fitch also pulls of a satire so slick, we can’t help laughing, and I suppose that this is what she means by “the sheer mad joy of all of it.”