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December 2, 2014

The View From the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney

view-from-the-laneA reader’s first impression of Deborah-Anne Tunney’s The View From the Lane will certainly be informed from the striking image on its cover, which I recognized as an image by Bryan Scott from the beautiful book, Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg. It’s a cover that invites the reader inside, out of the chill—fresh snow, fresh tracks. Though it’s a bit of a trick—the stories in this book aren’t set in Winnipeg at all, and while there is a universal element to both the cover image and the stories, the latter is actually quite particular in its locale, which is the Overbrook neighbourhood of Ottawa, a public housing development built during the 1950s. But still, I think that the cover is right, because of how it drew me to the book, my interest only heightened by a glowing endorsement by Isabel Huggan on the back.

The cover is right too because of the weather. “Winter suited us: the howl of wind, the frost as thick as calluses on the window, the sleet we could see blowing along icy sidewalks in long crystal strands, all served to isolate us in our home that creaked under the weight of all that winter snow.”

The View from the Lane is a book that recalls Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories in its scope. We follow Tunney’s protagonist, Amy, back before her own birth to the lives of her mother and her sisters, their storied childhood in a big house on Nelson Street in Ottawa. One by one, the sisters leave school and begin work in the salon on the ground floor of the Chateau Laurier hotel, and from there they met their fate in the form of disappointing marriages, widowhood, love and loss, and love and loss again. It’s true—winter suits them. It’s almost never summer in this book, it’s almost always snowing, and the stories’ foundation seems to be a disbelief in the possibility of happiness. Or at least the easy kind. Whose opposite still is never dreariness, no, but something more real, and it’s always unfailingly interesting.

Ostensibly, the stories are written from a variety of points of view, many different ways of observing the same thing, which is Amy’s life and history. Though we begin to see that the structure is not even as straightforward as that, and that there is an omniscience here that comes from Amy’s imaginings, her supposing. Even the story told from the perspective of the dog is a thought experiment. She is a woman in the habit of observing mirrors, reflections caught in windows. Her character is implicit in every story in this collection, even those in which she doesn’t appear. Everything is subjective.

While chronology drives the narrative forward, a backward-looking sense pervades the entire book, and it reminded me of the line from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye when she writes about the past ever bubbling on up to the surface: “Nothing ever goes away.” Which isn’t the only way The View From The Lane recalled Atwood’s classic, the two books with atmospheres so similar—1950s’ childhood, 1960s’ adolescence, the dark edges of suburbia. Though Tunney’s in particular is not so picket-fenced, and she creates a wonderful sense of the neighbourhood of Amy’s childhood, with its red-brick duplexes and townhouses, rusted cars and brambles in the lane ways between the houses, stray dogs roaming the alleys. Even then, the neighbourhood was rough, but it was a place of people, connections, and stories, not a bad place to grow up. Amy’s perspective casts those streets and lanes and alleys within a fog of nostalgia.

It’s where she keeps coming back to even as she grows up, moves away, gets married, then divorced. These are the stories and images she returns to, just as her mother kept returning to her own childhood, and eventually it becomes clear that these stories—which are rich and varied—are marking the trajectory of Amy’s movement toward an understanding of her mother and her mother’s life, at the same time her mother is slipping away from her.

I loved this book just as much as I’d supposed I would when I first saw the cover. Tunney’s prose is the kind that makes her reader sit up and take notice, and while it’s consciously written in some parts, more often it just served to perfectly cast a spell. My other mild criticism is that Amy herself, the heart of the story, remains a bit elusive—there’s a part where somebody comments that her name doesn’t seem to suit her and I felt similarly. The book is so firmly ensconced in her vision that her character is hard to read. When we encounter her more directly in the book’s final story, she almost seems like a stranger.

But even that is more a mark of the book’s interestingness than its failing. And seems in keeping with the cover image too—notice there’s nobody out on the road at night. Instead, this is a book about atmosphere, and memories, and the power of a place in the past to shape the people we become.

One thought on “The View From the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney”

  1. Melanie says:

    I guess I assumed all girls growing up in Ottawa were named Mary Catherine or Magaret Mary (the first being my mom, the second my paternal aunt) or some versions on that theme. That’s where my mom grew up: poor, Irish, convent-school educated with a gaggle of older brothers. I would be interested to read this book just to hear a different perspective of the 1950’s Ottawa I have built up in my mind. The name Amy does seem an odd choice to me though. I’ll have to ask mom if she knew anyone by that name.

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