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September 16, 2010

Sandra Beck by John Lavery

I could say that I’ve never before read a book like Sandra Beck by John Lavery, but then I would be lying, if only because I once read the book Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee.  These two books are only alike in the strangest ways, both being oddly fragmented novels that aren’t quite novels. Both being about a woman who is never entirely present, who is never ever seen from the same perspective twice. Both novels even end with similarly strange conclusions at customs desks, though Sandra Beck in general, I think, is a less perplexing shade of weird.

It is true, however, that I’ve never read prose quite like John Lavery’s. His sentences are acrobats, flinging from trapezes with no sign of a net. His narrative goes backwards and forwards, overlapping and backing up again on itself. His writing manages to be gritty, ribald, and really beautiful, though it’s also challenging and takes a while to get a sense of the way it flows. The book eventually establishes a momentum, even dipping in and out of time as it does, but then just when you think you know what it’s doing, you realize you know nothing at all. Sandra Beck is the kind of book you could read thirteen times in a row, and it would be a different novel every time.

The book’s first section is from the perspective of Josee, daughter of Sandra Beck, who is everything to her daughter, and also at the same time, never enough. Who manages to be at the periphery of Josee’s life, but also at its centre. Sandra Beck walks with crutches, is perpetually busy as manager of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, is married to Montreal police chief Paul-Francois Basterache, and though Josee refers to her mother as “my happiness”, she also makes her daughter miserable. Josee is in the midst of adolescence, has the voice of a child but is conducting a bizarre affair with a clarinetist’s birth-mark. Witnessing her mother from a distance at the section’s climax, Josee has the revelation that she has never known Sandra Beck at all.

The second section takes some years after the first, as Josee is now grown-up and self-sufficient, allegedy teaching theatre to children in Bogota. Almost 200 pages of a drive from Lennoxville to Montreal, the reader is an invisble passenger in the backseat of Paul-Francois’ LeSabre, and he’s addressing us directly. P-F, so I’ve been told, has appeared before as a character in Lavery’s short stories, and I can see how the writer can’t quite get enough the guy. He’s the police-chief, and a television personality (on the local crime show C’est le loi/It’s the Law, an ardent husband, impatient father, and a wonderful meandering storyteller who does not fear contradiction, the complicated nature of life. He is bilingual, and so duality is his thing. P-F makes the journey fly by, recounting his relationship with the elusive Sandra Beck. The difference in their mother tongues standing in for the differences between any two people, and that inevitable failure to communicate exactly what one means. “When you love someone, you often understand perfectly what they’re going to say before they say it. It’s when they say it that you find yourself struggling to grasp what they’re attempting to tell you.”

I’ll admit that it took me a long time to understand where the story was going, and that even once I was swept up in the momentum of P-F’s story, I sometimes still had a hard time trying to grasp what he was telling me. That I found Josee’s section a bit tedious at times. But when I got to the end of the story (and it hit me with a brutal wallop), there was no doubt that I’d just experienced something quite extraordinary. And yes, this is a novel that begs to be encountered for a second time, to bring the pieces all together, but even disassembled, this puzzle is oh so worth the read.

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