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May 11, 2014

Pat Barker’s Union Street and Just Pretending by Lisa Bird-Wilson

just-pretendingBooks are another thing that happen when you’re making other plans. My friend, Maria Meindl, recently recommended I read Union Street, Pat Barker’s first novel. On Maria’s blog, she writes, “When I read The M Word, I thought of the at-times agonizing intimacy of Barker’s book. She portrays the women in a working class neighbourhood in northern England. At first read, I pegged it as taking place just after World War Two, a grittier version of Call the Midwife; then it became disturbingly clear that this was the 1970s. The women’s choices are severely limited, and not surprisingly, the key moments, the defining dramas of their lives are played out on the stage of motherhood.”

So I tracked down a copy, even though it was the worst edition ever, and read it last week while were in Winnipeg. And I’m so grateful to Maria for recommending this book, which is a collection of linked short stories whose different characters (ranging from an 11 year old girl to a Hagar Shipley-ish character not far from death) mark the progression of a woman’s life. The book is gritty, effortlessly daring, disturbing, and ever-surprising. Barker’s women feature levels of complexity not often seen in fiction, and while “the key moments [of] the defining dramas of their lives” are events that we have encountered before, we’ve never encountered them from Barker’s particular angle in which these characters with so little agency are allotted a complicated breadth. These women are not just victims, but they are whole, complicated, flawed and brilliant beings. Their lives are depicted in agonizing detail, what it is to inhabit these bodies which birth, miscarry, are beaten, stand for hours on a factory line (and its a cake factory–the most magnificent detail), which are raped, fucked, rarely loved (but sometimes), tired and weary. But not just bodies–these are people. It’s a truly extraordinary book.

union-streetThe book I turned to next, presuming no connection, was Just Pretending, a short story by Lisa Bird-Wilson, who is a Metis writer from Saskatchewan whose stories have been widely published in prominent Canadian literary journals. Just Pretending had been on my radar for a while, but I took special notice when it recently took multiple prizes at the Saskatchewan Book Awards, including University of Regina Book of the Year.  And it soon became clear to me as I started to read that Barker and Bird-Wilson’s books are similar projects, portraying the wholeness of marginalized women’s experiences, experiences which hinge on maternity, on motherhood and daughterhood, and on what happens when these connections are broken.

Many of these stories centre on characters who have been divorced from their heritage. In the first story, “blood memory”, a woman about to give birth to her first child imagines what her birth mother must have experienced at her own birth, and anticipates the awesome, surreal experience of meeting a blood relation for the first time in her life. In “the nirvana principle”, a young girl whose trauma from abandonment is compounded after a difficult experience attempts to outsmart-aleck her psychiatrist. A father in “deedee” visits a bar in a strip-mall, anticipating a reunion with the daughter he hasn’t seen for years, but she never shows and he gets lost to his old demons. In “Julia and Joe”, a young woman is about to give birth to her first child and and navigating complicated terrain as she lives with the father of the boyfriend who has taken off and left her. A woman’s dream of a happy blended family in “oldest sons” is tainted by the disappearance of her stepson. In “Just Pretending”, a teenage girl who is adopted contemplates her “real family”, which hangs her entire present situation in a state of “pretend”, enabling her to take risks with a charismatic older boy which leads to tragic consequences.

In so many of these stories, pregnancies are miscarried, babies stillborn, symbolizing the perpetuation of the disconnection between the future and the past, and also characters’ lack of agency in their own circumstances. Not to mention reflecting reality. Characters also struggle with addiction–a particularly strong story is “drinking wine spo dee o dee”, in which a down-and-out character drinks in a bus station parking lot in Winnipeg. His girlfriend has taken off to Toronto to find the child she gave up for adoption years ago, and he tells his story as testament to her: “Sadie liked me telling stories. ‘It’s how we know who we are,’ she was always saying,” but he points out that his stories were different from hers, which were “ancestors and shit like that. Mine are just life stories. Jokes and life stories.” Just as powerful though.

This story is followed by “hungry”, about a young girl whose abused and deprived experiences in the care of her mother lead to uprootings and trouble in foster care. Desperate for love, for something to call her own, she puts up with the attention of male classmates who end up raping her, and she becomes pregnant. It’s a harrowing but illuminating story, how one thing leads to another, how there is a light inside Bird-Wilson’s Lucy Wingfeather that no amount of trauma can extinguish. It is a story of perpetuating cycles, and then there is a powerful conclusion of connection finally, in which the mother/daughter connection is finally completed, which parallels a similar conclusion in Pat Barker’s story of a woman whose painful existence as an abused wife leaves her despairing at having brought a daughter (another woman) into the world to continue the struggle, and then finally, she recognizes her daughter and there is some kind of catharsis (we hope).

And we do hope. We cling to the moments of light in these stories, the powerful longing and love to cancel out all that gets lost. There is also humour here, both situational and also in the voices which Bird-Wilson evokes to bring her characters to life. There is a real mix of stories in the collection, and my only criticism of the book is that I’d have preferred more careful creation, perhaps fewer stories with the connections between them made implicit. While Bird-Wilson’s considerable talent is clear here, it would have been better highlighted with more selectivity, a nod to the book itself in addition to its stories.

But the stories are strong. It’s true that our stories are how we know who we are, but they’re also how others can know us, how the experiences of other people can be known. So I am glad that Lisa Bird-Wilson and Just Pretending are receiving such deserved attention. These are life stories, and there is is nothing “just” about it. Pun intended.

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