June 17, 2012
Sue Sorensen's A Large Harmonium
Please, let me tell you about Sue Sorensen’s A Large Harmonium, though it’s distinctly possible that I already did because I spent last week telling everyone about it, urging them to read it, this smart, hilarious book that delighted me so. “I say I will buy the Jiffy Markers myself,” is the novel’s first line, and I was hooked for Woolfish reasons and because I had no idea where a line like that might take me.
The line is delivered by Janet Erlicksen, a university English professor who’s on the cusp of a mild mid-life crisis. The novel begins in April with the school term ending and she must contemplate a summer before her without the scaffold of routine– what then to hang her days on? She considers writing an academic book about bad mothers in children’s literature, or penning a murder mystery in which her mother-in-law is the victim, or starting an online academic journal, but none of these ideas gets far off the ground. She’s also distracted by a sense that her husband Hector is in love with another woman, and she’s ever distracted by their three-year old son Little Max for whom distraction is a main occupation.
In 12 chapters, the novel takes us through Janey’s year month-by-month, incidents in her life, and those of her family and her friends, and it’s Janey’s voice and her humour that drives us, as well as turns in the plot that are never quite what you’d expect. And I love this novel quite simply because it’s doing all my favourite things: it’s funny, it shows a mother for whom motherhood is just part of a complex identity, it shows a rock-solid marriage (in spite of Janey’s suspicions), abortion shows up in the life of secondary characters but as a sad and ordinary thing rather than a plot-point, unabashed feminism shows up too, children’s literature is taken seriously, and it’s an academic satire that really is. (Janey presents a paper on the absence of talking animals in Canadian children’s literature. “It is far more fun to present a research project about something that is not there than something there is. I can get people riled up, outraged. Where are the talking animals? Who has repressed the talking animals? I could make my scholarly reputation.”)
Winnipeg resident Sorensen has much in common with Carol Shields, who was another, except that her tone is darker and more overtly hilarious. The novel’s pace is brisk and easy, which is not to say “light”, because there is depth here, but the story goes down just as well. Just as Shields did, Sorensen’s got a grasp on joy and how it factors amidst life’s absurdities. This is a wonderful novel with broad appeal. It’s absolutely the funniest and one of the best books I’ve read in ages.