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March 17, 2014

After Alice by Karen Hofmann

after-aliceWhat a pleasure is spending a weekend devouring a book, and for me this weekend, that book was After Alice by Karen Hofmann, which I absolutely adored. It was the most unCanLitty CanLit I’ve encountered in ages, the story instead calling to mind English novelists like Anita Brooker and Daphne DuMaurier, and then Wallace Stegner, Barbara Kingsolver and Joan Didion in its evocation of place. This is a debut novel by Hofmann, whose previous poetry collection was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Prize in 2009, but she writes with a touch so rich and deft that there is nothing of the debut about it.

There’s a lot going on here: Sidonie Von Täler has retired from her academic job in Montreal designing computer models for psychology experiments. Sidonie herself is something of a cold-fish, so this seems a job to which she’d be unusually suited. We’re locked into her point of view, and it soon becomes apparent that something is just askew–she is a synesthete, displays some symptoms of Aspergers in her perception of the world. Which is not to say that Sidonie’s point of view is the point of this story, that this is a novel or that she’s a protagonist we’d ever refer to as “quirky” ala Come Thou Tortoise or the Dog in Nighttime, but just that she’s a bit peculiar. Her point of view is fascinating, and her voice is sharply defined.

She’s returned to the Okanagan Valley where she’d fled from years before. In her childhood, her family’s orchard had been one of the biggest in the area, their land defining every circumstance of their existence and their status in the community. Sidonie, ever awkward, had been raised in the shadow of her beautiful sister, Alice, whose tragic later circumstances we’re not made aware of until later in the book. Upon her return, Sidonie gets to know her sister’s sons and their own family’s. She’s also close to her niece, Cynthia, whom she’d raised after Alice’s death, and Cynthia’s son, Justin, though much goes unsaid between all of them, Sidonie choosing to believe that she prefers her independence to the complications and niceties of family ties.

And you can’t blame her–Sidonie is brilliant, accomplished and self-succificent, having left a life rich with culture and a couple of close, rewarding friendships back in Montreal. She’d married well–an architect who built Habitat 67 in Montreal, where they’d lived until their marriage ended. She looked upon her marriage not warmly, but as coolly as she did everything. Some might find her life lonely, but there is no sign that she does. But something has driven her to come home, to a past that refuses to stayed packed away in boxes.

After Alice has mystery at its core, and while its approach is most literary, Hofmann has combined that approach with well-tuned plot that makes this book a page-turner. It is also very much a book about place, though not sentimentally so–Sidonie doesn’t do that–but instead the details of the land and what grows there, what it means to work that land in terms of economics and physical labour. It’s a novel that might take a place on the shelf beside Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle or The Hundred Mile Diet in its consideration of the terroir, what the land does to its people. And what times does too, Hofmann weaving past and present together, Sidonie’s family home casting a spell that makes it difficult for her to tell where one of them finishes and the other begins, though it’s really that points like this just don’t happen. 

Hofman’s prose is lyrical and effective, if a little in need of tautness. And her ending is a little bit too tidy and choreographed, though still with its surprises. But these are minor quibbles for a novel so ultimately satisfying, and so I welcome Hofmann’s refreshing voice with this wonderful book, one of the most interesting and exciting that I’ve encountered in ages.

3 thoughts on “After Alice by Karen Hofmann”

  1. carin says:

    Sold. Can’t wait!

  2. Tania says:

    You have completely sold me on this book. Thank you!

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