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Pickle Me This

May 1, 2019

Bina, by Anakana Schofield

Anakana Schofield’s Bina follows Martin John, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2015, and Malarky, winner of the 2013 Amazon First Novel Award, and takes place in the same fictional universe—the character Bina first appeared in Malarky. And now Bina has had enough, we’re told, and really, what woman hasn’t, I wondered. Supposing that Bina had had enough in a very general sense—but there is nothing general about Bina. Instead, this is very much a novel about specificity, and the failure of general terms, common tropes, and lazy thinking to adequately reflect human experiences which makes it very difficult/impossible to achieve real understanding, even in the truest of friendships.  

But then one complicating factor in all this (and there are many) is that Bina herself isn’t being very specific. (“How can I say it without saying it?”) Confined to her bed and afraid for reasons she cannot properly delineate (some identifying details are redacted with a thick black line) she is scrawling her story onto the backs of envelopes with whichever writing device she can dig out from under the bedcovers, which explains the peculiar shape of her paragraphs, short lines stretching long. What she’s writing is not so much her story, but a series of warnings, one of which involves the danger of discerning a larger meaning to her narrative project: “Don’t trust a word said after I’ve stopped,” she writes. “…Don’t arrive at the end of this tale insisting it was too long or too wide or too unlike you. I am not interesting in appealing to you.”

But she does.

Some things have happened to Bina—she found a man in a ditch, she delivered Meals on Wheels, she couldn’t get rid of her lodger, she’s been getting violent messages on her answering machine, her best friend is dead, Bina’s been in jail, hippies are camping in her yard, and there’s the Tall Man who comes over and they sit down and play Scrabble. And similarly is the novel itself a puzzle, a kind of wordplay, with blanks to be filled in (but alas, no triple word score). But how one of things that happened to Bina connects with all the other things that happened is not a straightforward kind of crossword situation unfolding line-by-line neatly across the board.

I often wonder at the women who give birth to awful young fellas like Eddie. I think there’s a case to be heard for shoving the likes of Eddie back up and starting all over again. I believe in abortion since I met Eddie. It’s a shame you can’t abort a 40-year-old.”

There is the most fascinating kind of moral ambiguity in this novel, and it is here where Bina’s lack of interest in appealing to us is most apparent—she keeps threatening murder, though her lawyers implore her not to. She’s not here to deliver any message beyond her warnings, and the novel is most remarkable in its refusal to have a gist and, like its protagonist, to conform to anybody’s expectations. Yes, this is a novel about female rage, and failures of society, how women are ignored and dismissed, but it will not sit tidily in any kind of box. Bina is a novel opposed to boxes.

“Bina’s not for difficult books,” the reader is told. “Life’s full of difficulty, so if she were ever to lie down and take up a book, it couldn’t be a difficult one.”

Bina is not a difficult book. It’s a provocative book, an original book, and it’s challenging, requiring the reader’s engagement and attention, but engaging with and attending to the book is not difficult, even if the protagonist is so determined that she will not appeal to you. Because she does, and her voice is fabulously caustic and it’s almost delightful to follow her, no matter how dark a turn the story is going to take (and it does). And once I got to the end, the puzzle still wasn’t solved, not all the blank spaces filled in yet, and it’s the kind of book that is best read more than once but it’s also the kind of book you will want to read more than once, and the second time I liked it even better.

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