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October 14, 2015

Basic Black With Pearls, by Helen Weinzweig, and Nightwatching, by Méira Cook

basic-black-with-pearlsHelen Weinsweig’s “lost feminist classic” Basic Black With Pearls was winner of the Toronto Book Award in 1981, and has been reissued as part of House of Anansi Press’s A List series on the occasion of Weinzweig’s centenary. It’s part of the city’s canon of books about unhinged women and sub-urban ennui, along with Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians and Atwood’s The Edible Woman, although Weinsweig’s novel is far stranger. Its protagonist, Shirley Kaszenbowski, apparently travels the world on false passports, moving from city to city upon the signal of her dubious lover, the mysterious Coenraad, who communicates to her via her codes inside back-issues of National Geographic.  This arrangement is disturbed when she finds herself called back to Toronto, the city she grew up in and has fled from. So that when she arrives and begins to navigate the streets in search of her lover (who can take on many forms), the world around her becomes textured with story and significance, more than enough to trip on. Wearing the black dress and pearls that, she believes, permit her an aura of respectability, Shirley partakes in the city before her and also the city of her memory, a city that has vanished. The line between reality and Shirley’s delusions is just as blurry—the point of view reminded me of Our Woman from Anakana Schofield’s Malarky—making for a discombobulating but compelling reading experience.

**

nightwatchingMéira Cook has followed up her award-winning first novel, The House on Sugarbush Road (which was one of my favourite books of 2013) with Nightwatching, also set in South Africa, but this time in the Orange Free State during the 1970s. Though place and time play a more subtle force in this story, which zooms in so close on its characters almost so as to render the backdrop irrelevant. Taking place during one hot summer during which the days seem to stretch forever, and their hours too, the narrative conveys time’s slowness and its intensity, the whole world in slow motion. Motherless Ruthie Blackburn is on the cusp of puberty, her body erupting like a series of volcanoes, and so too her emotions, and yet still she cannot attract the attention of her distant father. So she takes out her rage on Miriam, the Blackburn’s maid and Ruthie’s caregiver, all the while Miriam is consumed by other concerns—her son the political radical, her wayward daughter, the babies that the other maids bring for her to hold on Saturdays before they grow too big and are sent away from their mothers to be raised by extended family. It’s an awkward and tragic status-quo, so that Ruthie has far too much freedom to roam streets, particularly at night, peering into houses and imagining the worlds inside.

Curiously for a novel, Nightwatching has a short story’s pacing, immediacy and vivid focus. The plot approaches its tragic end with a sense of inevitability, and in the end it’s not the plot that’s stirring as much as the prose, which creates the novel’s atmosphere and casts a spell that lingers. With the rhythms of its long complicated sentences: “But it was no use, she’d lost the knack, and the sound of the other woman’s name, for once, rang hollow, did not reassure, was not a talisman or a comfort or a cure.” Or, “…and he made his mind a blank, still as a lake with no thoughts to skip across its surface…” And, “Sip shook his head hard as he’d trained himself to do and the past broke up into tiny pieces, the bright colourful mosaics of incredulity and dispassion.”

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