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Pickle Me This

October 4, 2015

Ledger of the Open Hand, by Leslie Vrydenhoek

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“Great civilizations aren’t remembered for their tax policies.” —Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail.

I thought of Ledger of the Open Hand, by Leslie Vryenhoek, when I read the quote above, from a story about the failure of politicians in our federal election to grapple with issues deeper than budgets and surpluses, to talk about anything except money. Because Vryenhoek’s novel is about a character just like these uninspired (and uninspiring) politicians, Meriel-Claire Elgin who sees the world in terms of debits and credits, who conflates value with values, and the novel is also about how limited is such a worldview.

Though it’s an easy trap to fall into, this obsession with fiscal responsibility and thinking of thrift as a moral virtue. Raised in a small prairie town by parents of modest means, Meriel-Claire is determined to prove herself responsible as she begins university in the city, working in the summers and part-time to supplement her parents financial support. Though she quickly sees her experience in contrast with that of her sophisticated roommate, Daneen, who takes her family’s wealth for granted. Their respective financial situations seem to demarcate their places in the world, Meriel-Claire decides, imagining herself as the hard-working ant while her grasshopper friend devotes herself to shallow and frivolous concerns. Unconsciously seeing the fable analogy to its end, Meriel-Claire envisions a day when there will be justice, when her hard-work and prudence will be rewarded and Daneen will meet her inevitable downfall.

But of course, life is not this simple, structured like a ledger sheet (which, cleverly, is suggested in the novel’s cover image), and neither is the novel. Interestingly, the story of the ant and the grasshopper has alternate versions in which it’s the grasshopper who is actually the virtuous one, and The Ledger of the Open Hand (like life itself) permits plenty of space for such ambiguity. The novel is broad in its scope, taking place over three decades, and showing the changes in the life of Meriel-Claire (and in her family’s) as she moves from her twenties to her forties. And because all of this is presented from Meriel-Claire’s point of view, everything is about money—she starts off as a bookkeeper and eventually becomes a debt counsellor; with colleagues and family, she gains a fierce (and justified) reputation as a tightwad. Though Meriel-Claire doesn’t see it quite that way herself, and Vryenhoek gives us real sympathy for her situation and how she got there, and the truth is that so much about being in the world is about money after all. It’s just simpler for people like Daneen who don’t have to worry about it. Of course it’s easy not to think about money all the time when you have no need to.

Written in short chapters that whisk the reader through the years, we follow Meriel-Claire through her first jobs, home-ownership, through failed investments and unexpected windfalls. We see her parents sell their business and begin to enjoy their retirement, and live a life that seems at odds with Meriel-Claire’s memories of her modest upbringing. Their distance from their daughter is augmented by tragedy in their lives, tragedy that none of them is really ever able to account for. And looking on through all of this is Daneen, who grows close to the family and eventually becomes a successful author whose stories seem a bit too familiar to Meriel-Claire, raising issues of just how much borrowing is permitted in matters of story as well as money, and also of how adept is anybody at seeing a reflection of her own self?

While all too present on the political stump, issues of finance are curiously absent from so much of literature, whose bills seems to get paid almost by magic (unless it’s a book about the farm and foreclosure). Vryenhoek manages to weave a deep and engaging novel out of money matters, though she makes it about more than that. While at times Meriel-Claire is a bit robotic in her approach to the world and Daneen can verge on caricature, Mariel-Claire’s parents are rich, complex and fascinating characters, and the connections between all these people over the decades yield surprising insights and remarkable depth, culminating in a really wonderful story. Vryenhoak’s prose is bright and accessible, the novel fast-paced and compelling, and there is a startling originality to all of it.

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