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Pickle Me This

April 5, 2015

Circle of Stones by Suzanne Alyssa Andrew

circle of stonesSuzanne Alyssa Andrew’s Circle of Stones is a novel in fragments, the story passed like a baton from one character to another, each one adding something essential to the overarching plot in addition to the peculiarity of their own perspective. It’s a tenuous arrangement, but it holds because of the solidness of Andrew’s prose, the rootedness of her characters, and her deftness at creating mystery and suspense by arranging the puzzle pieces of her novel just so.

The overarching plot involves a pair of star-crossed lovers. Nik, a talented art student, is drawn to the enigmatic Jennifer, painting her features over and over in order to hold her in a way he knows he never can. Though he tries. When she disappears from his apartment in Vancouver, taking her dance bag but nothing else, leaving her cell-phone behind, he decides to go after her, against everybody’s advice—except for his grandmother, who’d urged him to be the one good man in their family and take care of the people he cares about. But Nik’s good intentions are thwarted by a violent thug who also appears to be on Jennifer’s trail. He quickly loses control of the plot altogether.

The plot is then taken up by Nik’s former roommate months later in Toronto, trying to sort out the broken pieces of his life (and here, Andrew underlines that the spaces between us are what connect us after all). Aaron has RCMP officers appearing on his doorstep asking questions about Nik, plus he’s struck by a meeting with his English professor, an annotated copy of The English Patient. Next up is the Prof herself, distracted by updates from her estranged sister about their dying mother. And then the story is taken up by a Nurse at the dying mother’s long-term care, Tina preoccupied by her Lhia, troubled teenage daughter, and something strange going on amidst the staff at work. The following chapter is from Lhia’s perspective as she negotiates her independence and sense of self as she goes into the world. On the streets of Ottawa, she meets up with Nik, who’s been on the run for awhile. And we’ve been catching glimpses of him and Jennifer in the periphery of the previous chapters, and have been able to piece together their separate trajectories, filling in the blanks.

Next is George, teenage Lhia’s uncle, a gay civil servant trying to live the good life on contract, trying to keep ahead of the place he came from but living paycheque to paycheque (when the paycheques even arrive). And then his friend, Lucy, whose story I’d read years ago as “Extreme Ironing” in Taddle Creek magazine. Suffering through grief at the death of her mother, determined to fill in the gap of her loss by taking care of her father, having his shirts sent across the country so she can iron them (on the Montreal subway no less, a guerrilla manoeuvre). I will admit that by the time we get to Tim, Lucy’s brother, a documentary filmmaker, the story seems to have circled a bit too beyond its point of origin, so it’s with relief that we find, in the following chapter, the circle narrowing again.

While the Nik and Jennifer storyline is what ties the pieces of the story together, for me they weren’t the most interesting part of the novel. They were always just a little bit too outside the frame (even intentionally so), their characters airily constructed. Some of this is deliberate—there is a scene in which Jennifer lights match after match, a vision only in the most fleeting light. But they were both a bit too ethereal to be true, whereas the other characters carrying the novel are startlingly realized in vivid, stark lines. To the point where the reader is overwhelmed, amazed that all these people—teenagers to octogenarians, men and women, gay and straight, parents, widows, the lonely and loved—have all been born from just one writer’s pen. And that there is nothing facile about what connects them—this kind of network is a simulacrum of the world.

Full disclosure requires that I note that Suzanne is a friend of mine, which only means that I was particularly pleased to like her novel so much. And it’s a demonstration of her talent that such a diversity of voices, experiences and points of view are so convincingly depicted, and that they are hung together, with mystery and intrigue, as something so remarkably whole.

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