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Pickle Me This

December 5, 2011

Kalila by Rosemary Nixon

Earlier this year when I read Charlene Diehl’s memoir Out of Grief, Singing, I marvelled at the way that fiction holds writers to certain constraints, on the way we have to bend life and draw out connections to build a story. And Rosemary Nixon is aware of this in her novel Kalila, the story of a couple whose daughter is born with inexplicable complications and spends her life in an isolette in the NICU. A novel like this refuses to conform to narrative expectations; as Nixon’s protagonist Maggie tells us, “Stories are meant to lead somewhere. To rising action. Climax. Closure. And they lived Happily Ever After.” Of course, a story like Kalila’s takes on a different shape.

Which means that as a novel, Kalila is not immediately satisfying, that the narrative is set up in a way that puts the reader at a distance, that the approach is clinical, but this was never a story that was going to satisfy. And Nixon knows exactly what she’s doing here: if Maggie appears to be a protagonist in a trance, it’s because she is. If she and her husband Brodie appear to be disconnected from the world around them, from the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, even from the story they find themselves in the midst of, it’s because they’re meant to be. They feel like strangers in their own story, a story in which they never would have cast themselves, one so entirely different than everything they ever expected when they imagined their baby being born, and a reader’s experience is analogous.

Brodie is a high school physics teacher, and his classroom scenes are beautifully choreographed (and they reminded me of Monoceros in this respect, another Calgary book, and Nixon thanks Suzette Mayr as “my writing buddy”, which wasn’t actually a huge surprise). He keeps his mind off his wife’s pain and the plight of his tiny daughter by focusing on particles and waves, on the sound of his students’ happiness, and the strangely bending laws of the universe. And though as a scientist, he knows the way things fall apart, when he’s alone with his daughter, he resorts to fairy tale narratives, and he tells her a story of a tiny princess in a glass castle locked away.

Maggie doesn’t have the diversion of work, but rather the conspicuousness of being a mother without her baby. She struggles with her displacement as nurses and doctors assume care of her child, doctors and nurses who don’t even know what her name is. She longs to love her child in the proper way, but “it’s too late for love at first sight”, she says at one point, and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Though she notes that the doctors and nurses don’t quite know what to do with her daughter either, whose problems are innumerable and indecipherable, and who isn’t getting any better.

The baby herself is at a remove from all of this, both literally and figuratively. In every sense, she is the unknown variable. There is a coldness to the parents’ approach to their child, a measuredness. They are wary, weary, heartbroken, and numb all at once. An actual acknowledgement of the workings of their hearts at this moment in time would cause either one to stop and break down, but breakdowns aren’t what Kalila is all about. This is a novel about going forward into the unknown, about how a new mother occupies herself at home during the day when her daughter has needles stuck into her head, and about remembering to put the dog out, to eat, to make small talk with acquaitances in the grocery store.

The novel’s restive pace shifts about 2/3 of the way through when Brodie and Maggie decide to bring their daughter home after five months in the hospital, to have the empty space in their lives finally filled. And though they don’t dare utter the word “miracle”, they’re both thinking it. But as Nixon, of course, has already told us, this rising action is never going to lead to closure, to happily ever after. This ending has always been an inevitable thing.

I’m attracted to stories like this for less than savoury reasons perhaps. There’s a voyeuristic element to it, and one with especially self-serving motives. To me, reading books like these is a way to stare down my very worst fears, to not look away for as long as I can, and imagine that somehow this staring might prepare me for all those things one can never be prepared for. Though I’m not fooling anyone, of course, let alone myself. Further, Nixon writes with a precision that doesn’t really tolerate such self-indulgence on my part. In Kalila, there is no such thing as indulgence– it’s all about the story, and the peculiar shape that lives take on when stories shift into such unimagined terrain.

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