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November 3, 2015

Rumi and the Red Handbag, by Shawna Lemay

rumi-and-the-red-hangbagI am not a handbag person per se, but as a fervent believer in the secret (and sacred) lives of things, I’ve been really looking forward to Shawna Lemay’s novel, Rumi and the Red Handbag. And also as a fan of Lemay’s blog, Calm Things, and something that I found really wonderful about the book was how clear it was for those of us in the know that Lemay’s blogging is a huge part of her process. This is a book about handbags (among other things) by someone whose long-time blog was called “Capacious Hold-All,” after all, which is from Virginia Woolf’s diary, her description of what she wanted her diary to be. And so it seems that handbags are literary objects right from the novel’s departure—how could a reader ever have doubted?

Rumi and the Red Handbag is a slim, heartbreaking and perfect read, rich with gorgeous prose, and depth and texture. Infused with allusions, explicit and otherwise, it’s a hushed and quiet celebration of women and their lives and their words and the secrets they carry. There is the Woolf, of course, and references to Clarice Lispector, who I’ve never read, but now I have to, and Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath. Plus vintage Harlequins—this is a book that permits great reverence to women’s stories and women’s spaces.

Our narrator is Shaya, on the run from academia and her unfinished thesis about the secrets of women writers. She takes a job at a consignment shop where she spends one long Edmonton winter in thrall to her young colleague, Ingrid-Simone, whose haphazard education consists of snippets and quotations and lines gleaned from library books that have a tendency to fall off the shelf right into her hands as she meanders her way through the stacks. She’s preoccupied by questions of the soul, by ideas in general. She floats around spouting lines in a manner that is one hand a bit simple and precious, but then she is young and it reminded me of the way my friends and I used to try to pin the down the world with bits and pieces once upon a time. I certainly remember that impulse, and Lemay captures it so well: “For Ingrid-Simone, the idea of hoarding thoughts, holding so many threads of ideas like cupped water as you knelt, knees grinding into finest gravel, thirsty by a mountain stream, did not terrify or oppress her instead exhilarated her.”

When things get a little too ethereal, Lemay balances it out by startling moments of revelation taking place under fluorescent lights at the Shoppers Drug Mart cosmetics counter, and also at Wal Mart. For while this is a novel concerned with questions of the soul, those questions are connected to the material world, in particular with the things that come and go from the shop where Shaya and Ingrid-Simone spend their days. Purses in particular are Ingrid-Simone’s things, and inspired by Shaya’s literary passions, she begins creating miniature purses inspired by writers and books: the first is a tiny capacious hold-all ala Virginia Woolf, authentic right down to a miniature pencil which inspires the writer’s walk in “Street Haunting.”

And so each woman inspires the other, and they learns from each other, and Ingrid-Simone reignites Shaya’s desire to start writing again, jotting words and ideas on post-it notes, “threads of ideas” (and there again we have connections to clothes and to textiles), like the way her friend thinks. Though all the pieces together still do not solve the inherent mystery of Ingrid-Simone—what secrets is she fleeing from? What is her connection to a curious red handbag? And there are other mysteries too—what about the goings-on of the shop’s proprietor, and also how can customers become so consumed by their own lives that they fail to acknowledge the humanity of service staff? A question that wears down on both Ingrid-Simone and Shaya as the long winter goes on.

With spring, however, comes revelations, and departures, and a journey that ends at the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, a place Ingrid-Simone had long dreamed of making a pilgrimage to. A place that underlines her philosophy that there is a connection between a woman’s handbag and her soul. It’s a place for secrets, yes, and essential things, and for her stories. Especially for her stories.

For what is a handbag anyway but a place to keep a book?

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