July 12, 2015
On Monday evening, I became overwhelmed by an irrational compulsion to go out and purchase a copy of Heidi Julavits’ new book, The Folded Clock: A Diary. Like I really needed another book, but there was something about this one—I’d been reading about it at edge of evening over the past month or so—and I not only had a car (I was visiting my parents in Peterborough where the chain bookstore is open late) but I had no one sensible to talk me out of an out-of-the-way jaunt to the bookstore past the children’s bedtime, so we went and I am so glad we did. It would be a shame if my totally irrational compulsion purchase turned to be disappointing, but it was amazing, mind-blowing. I read it once and then went through it again in my hammock yesterday, making notes, trying to figure the whole thing out. It doesn’t hurt that the cover designer is Leanne Shapton, though the only bad thing about that is that the cover got damaged in my bag and now I am a little bit devastated.
- Read Eula Biss’s New York Times review of The Folded Clock
- Read Heidi Julavits’ tumblr, The Keeping Society: Objects and Ephemera from The Folded Clock
The Folded Clock is a diary, though it’s a most peculiar diary. Chronology is jettisoned in favour of an arrangement of time that is and isn’t wholly random. A year’s worth of entries, each one beginning with, “Today I…” The book’s inspiration, Julavits writes, coming from an experience she had revisiting the diaries of her young, writing that she’d always imagined was her foundation as a writer, and finding instead of a foundation that, “The actual diaries revealed me to possess the mind of a paranoid tax auditor.” Time itself, she notes, had changed, becoming sweeping, a simple day insubstantial. She’d also recently borne a serious illness, one that challenged her perceptions of time: “It was no longer linear; it did not cut through my day like a road. I did not see time ahead of me. I experienced time on top of me.”
Time is a preoccupation of the entries in The Folded Clock, as evidenced by the title. Time itself not linear—many of the “Today I…” entries are actually about events decades-old, inspired by objects or experiences in the present day—and there is the issue of the construction of the book itself, which was deeply revised and shaped over another period of time divorced from the immediacy of the diary. Parenthood is another preoccupation connected to time—the impossibly tiny span of a childhood, which spins out of our control, and then conversely (but not really), the unbearable vastness of time in a child’s company: “how can this day not mostly involve my waiting for it to be over?”
The diary’s various settings become familiar—the writer’s apartment in New York City, the community in Maine where Julavits, her husband and their children spend their summers, the German villa where they’re living while her husband is on a fellowship, and various artist retreats to which she escapes throughout the year. There is nothing haphazard in the entries’ arrangement, so that we’re introduced to a concept or thing or incident and will be referenced later, our knowledge taken for granted. Less obviously, the entries seem contextualized from a future vantage point so that each one takes its reader somewhere—a mini-essay every one. There is cohesion to the entire project, though the patterns are difficult to discern. Which is the point, Julavits points out, in one of the several clues she offers throughout the book pertaining to its curious construction:
“What’s on the page appears to have busted out of my head and traveled down my arms and through my fingers and my keyboard and coalesced on the screen. But it didn’t happen like that; it never happens like that.”
The Folded Clock is a book about the puzzles and mysteries of an ordinary comfortable life. For me, one of those mysteries is the way that a book—an object wholly apart from my existence, until I bought it—can appear to be reading my mind, stealing my life. (I have this experience also when I am reading Rebecca Solnit.) Like Julavits’ whole chapter about Wasted: The Preppie Murder, by Linda Wolfe, and being three fucks away from Robert Chambers—not that I have ever been such a thing, but I have a thing about that book. Or about abortions as women’s work, about how the boyfriends are always informed but they’re never there—abortions are something that happen between friends. About the internet and desire, about conscious attempts to resist the google-ization of everything—which is interesting because there is at first glance something so bloggish about Julavits’ approach, and yet the construction of her entries is so counter to blogging’s immediacy. The Folded Clock is a bit of a throwback, a project decidedly analogue.
It works because the writing is wonderful: lines like, “Worrying about originality is like worrying about the best place to hang your wall phone.” Anecdotes that start with, “Once I stole the name of a fetus.” How could you not want to read the rest? And while her prose style isn’t Didion’s, Julavits has that writer’s ability to lay down a thread and appear to be following it, while she is in fact blazing an altogether different trail. Connections, symbioses, and coincidence—all interwoven, meaningful and nothing by the by. And always, unfailingly, interesting. The question of whether male writers ever consider female writers a threat. The nature of relationships. Some of these entries made me uncomfortable, sometimes because I couldn’t identify, and other times because I could. And any diary worth its salt should garner such a response.
I loved this weird wonderful beautiful book, a book that was also easy to read in little bits—important when I was caring for my children without a break last week. A book I knew I needed before I needed it, and there is something otherworldly about the whole thing. Or perhaps I mean the opposite, that the book—with its preoccupation with objects and thingness and remarkable beauty as a thing itself—is eerily all too wordly—but then its not, it’s so rarefied, no matter how much it seems to have busted out of a head, out of the earth.
But still, it’s the kind of object one wants to go around clutching. Last week I wrote down directions to my friend’s house on a yellow post-it note that I promptly lost, mysteriously—which is another of Julavits’ preoccupations, the way that an object can dematerialize. When I found the post-it note again yesterday between the end pages and the back cover, I was not at all surprised. And I left it there. I will discover it again the next time I read the book, and of course I will remember.
July 5, 2015
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the trouble with comic heroines, their forever blunders, self-deprecation and “one-downmanship”, and about how female characters are not often permitted access to what novelist Kate Christensen refers “an august tradition of hard-drinking, self-destructive, hilarious anti-heroes” ala Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. Christensen was talking here about the protagonist of her first novel, In the Drink, a character who ended up being pegged as a not-quite-Bridget-Jones (without the sweetness)—it was the late ’90s after all. But nearly 20 years later, readers still don’t quite know what to do with a female counterpart to a character like Amis’s Lucky Jim—a character who messes up, isn’t necessarily loveable, and who doesn’t care if you don’t like it. A character like Lily Wilder, the hard-drinking, crazy-for-sex heroine of Eliza Kennedy’s debut novel, I Take You.
But I loved her. I did. Within the first few pages it is clear that Lily drinks too much, swears religiously, and has no compunction about casual sex as long as the sex is excellent, and it was all so refreshing. That she was a bit silly, but not stupid. That she was empowered, interesting, and nobody’s victim. Which is not to say that she hasn’t herself in quite a pickle as the novel begins: Lily is engaged to Mr. Wonderful—it’s been a whirlwind—and she’s pretty sure she even loves him, but she still can’t kick her habit of picking up men in bars and in elevators, and, well, everywhere. Lily wants to marry Will, because he’s a smart choice and Lily is wise enough to be in the habit of making these. But she doesn’t seem ready to become domesticated—and now the wedding is just days away.
The thing about Lily Wilder is that she’s happy. In fact, she insists upon her happiness, her value, which is rare with comic heroines. She is not a problem to be solved, and she doesn’t want to be fixed. She just wants to have it both ways—but how?
The story is set in Key West, Lily’s hometown, where she runs into a childhood friend with whom she has a complicated past. Her father, a dashing Lothario, is in town for the wedding, and so are all his ex-wives, plus Lily’s friends, and Will’s too—she accidentally sleeps with one of the groomsmen. So things aren’t at all straightforward even beyond the state of the forthcoming union, plus Lily has to do some work while she’s on her vacation, coaching a client for an upcoming deposition—her law firm is defending an oil company whose drilling explosion has caused massive devastation throughout the Gulf.
Madcap shenanigans ensue, with lots of smart writing, funny dialogue, and plenty of explicit sex—the prose is as shy as Lily is. The novel suffers from two problems, which seem somewhat incongruous—the first is that the political ramifications of the plots are heavily underlined in expository dialogue. I get that this is a huge revolution, a heroine who loves sex and is unabashed about it, that there is a massive double standard at work in which men get to be awesome for sleeping around but women get to be sluts. Though perhaps these underlinings would be helpful to a reader who is a little less unaware than I am. My second criticism is that the ending was a bit too neat, though the neatness was satisfying, but my eyebrows were just a little but raised.
But never mind, because I devoured this book in 24 hours, stayed up late reading, enjoyed myself immensely, and laughed out loud more than once. It’s a book that promised to be funny, and it really really was (although funny is subjective—Goodreads reviewers seem to disagree with me on this point, although it’s possible that they’re all idiots). It’s a book that surprised me, didn’t underestimate my intelligence, and dared to be different from almost every book I’ve ever read. A book that underlines also that women are complex, interesting people, and their comic heroines deserve to be just the same. And this one is.
I Take You is fantastic.
June 28, 2015
When I was away last weekend, Kate Cayley’s story collection, How You Were Born, was an ideal literary companion. Slimish, perfectly packaged, each story its own realized vision. Its effect more muted and subtle than Rhonda Douglas’s Welcome to the Circus, another short story collection I’ve loved lately, but still—so very good. Which is important when one is away from home and hoping for reading as excellent as one’s surroundings—the kind of thing you mustn’t get wrong. When our mini-break was over, I could underline its success by the fact that I’d managed to nearly get a whole book read, and I am glad that it was this one.
Kate Cayley is a playwright, poet, prize-winning YA author, and now, with How You Were Born, recipient of the Trillium Book Award. The day the book took the prize, I received my copy in the mail from All Lit Up, which technically means that I liked this book before it was so extraordinary lauded (and therefore am cool and a tastemaker), but one might have expected as much from Cayley. Though it’s worth noting that How You Were Born beat out novels by Margaret Atwood and Thomas King for the prize. Perhaps they should put that on a sticker and slap it on the cover.
It has been interesting to read these stories, many of which are about Queer family life, sandwiched between Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, which tell of the same. In Cayley’s first story, “Resemblance,” two women and their daughter travel to visit the mother of the girl’s biological father, who is recently deceased. The ending is quiet, ambiguous and uncomfortable as these people consider the weight and meaning of their connections. “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis” is spun from the most marvellous beginning: “My brother Richard was odd. By the time he was twelve my mother yearned for a diagnosis, but he was just odd.” A brother and sister spend their days high up in the backyard birch tree observing their eccentric neighbours, and the sister comes in sight of her own mother’s struggles and powerlessness: “My mother…was more like Richard than she knew.”
In “Stain,” a man attending a wedding weekend meets up with a woman he’d briefly encountered years ago in 2001 at the anti-capitalist protests in Quebec City. In “Midway, Midgets and Giants, Photograph 1914,” a two-feet-seven-inch tall circus performer reads of the legendary romance between Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, their wedding presided over by PT Barnum, and scans the crowds looking for her true love in the stands. And then a different turn altogether with “Fetch,” in which a man who supposes that his double has moved in next door, a harbinger of death, and responds as rationally as you might expect. “Acrobat” has a similar tone to “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis”, about a lonely girl who is new in town and partakes in an informal acrobatic circus, and learns something fundamental truth about herself in the story’s final moment.
In “Long Term Care,” things get complicated when an elderly father is moved into an assisted living unit, and his daughter fears that he is imagining himself back in Buchenwald, where he was traumatized in his youth. The blind protagonist of “Blind Poet” has a fleeting affair with an artist, the story tied up on classical allusion. “Young Hennerly” is a story and also the title of a creepy song sung to a folklorist collecting stories of residents of the mountains of West Virginia who finds the borders between life and myth begin to blur. In the Alice Munrovian “Boys,” a man finds himself responsible for his cousin who has always been a bit different, and whose own behaviour with young boys skirts the line between innocent and otherwise. And in the title story, a woman tells her child, about the sides and allegiances of motherhood, and of daring the “gamble” of bringing a child into the world.
May 12, 2015
I’m such an admirer of omniscience, though I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. There are readers for whom omniscience pulls them out of the story, exposing the limits of the fictional universe—that all this is artifice after all—but those very same limits, to me, are the very indicators that there is a fictional universe. It’s the point of reading a book, a whole imagined world to be revealed, and Kate Atkinson is a master at commanding its reins. From her very first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which begins with Ruby Lennox’s conception: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall…”—Atkinson has been part of a grand tradition of English writers (Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, etc.) pushing the bounds of narrative to discover just what a novel can hold and the multitudinous ways a story can be told.
Her last novel, Life After Life, was unabashed in its experimentation. What if, it supposed, a person could go back in her life, over and over again, and have the chance to do over what went wrong before? This was the story of Ursula Todd whose preternatural tendency toward expiration is matched only by her ability to be reborn (“I exist!”) over and over. Her story spans the first half of the twentieth century, encompassing world wars and radical social change. The metaphysical elements of the novel are never clearly delineated—Ursula sort of understands her situation but Atkinson provides no reason for her ability to be reborn and go back in time over and over again. Life After Life is a novel far more concerned with What If? than Why?—to what extent is there predestiny, can we control our fates, what are unintended consequences of that control? Can practice make perfect? What I found remarkable about Life After Life is that Atkinson uses her life-after-life device not just to play tricks, but to build characters too and and develop plot, and how this book of starts comes together to be something altogether whole.
(I am incapable of real criticism of Kate Atkinson. I am simply in awe of her work. But I also thought that Rohan Maitzen’s critical review of Life After Life was excellent, and adds even more texture to a very substantial novel.)
Atkinson’s new novel, A God in Ruins, is not a sequel to Life After Life, she explains in her afterword, but “a companion novel.” It’s the life story of Ursula’s brother Teddy in a version of their family’s life that is slightly different than those portrayed in the first novel. Where Ursula died over and over again, Teddy shows a predilection toward survival, miraculously making it through a career as a WW2 bomber pilot. And it is the war upon which his story hinges—an experience both makes him and destroys him. An experiences that does not become less raw as the war itself fades into history, though those around put it away in the past. “You can only go forward,” is a line delivered again and again in the text, a winky joke at the premise of Life After Life, but also blatantly wrong in the matter of narrative because an author is free to put her story together anyway she likes—forward, backward, and round and round in circles. Posing the questions: what if history never entirely goes away? how does it change as we carry it with us? And how is a conventional existence not unlike Ursula’s in reality: “It felt as if he had lived many lifetimes,” Teddy remembers at one point, and who has not felt this way? What is the cumulation of these lives, these selves? What is the thing that connects them?
The reader follows Teddy through his many lives, which are all lived in the same life—through the trauma of his war experiences (whose violence is unflinching but matter-of-fact), the happy early years of his marriage, his tumultuous relationship with his daughter, Viola, and the injustices she inflicts upon her own children, whom Teddy becomes responsible for. As with Life After Life, there is repetition, details slightly changed, conflicting accounts—reading the novel through a similar metaphysical lens as the previous novel is an illuminating experience. And at the end of the story, Atkinson shows her hand with a twist that shall not be revealed, but it’s wonderful and gut-punching, and demonstrates that we’re in the hand of a master writer. As if you ever had any doubts…
April 27, 2015
Rhonda Douglas doesn’t miss a beat in her fiction debut, the short story collection, Welcome to the Circus. It’s a collection to be admired right down to its basic components—the sentences. “…our three hearts open and close like the mouths of tiny birds,” in “Nous and René Lévesque.” Later in the same story, “The future seems to yawn open, becomes something far less certain, all of plans swinging on their hinges.” In “Humanitarian Relief,” “Henry Jeans amasses flesh about his bones with the single-minded focus of a NASCAR driver eating up track.” Ten stories, each one based around a tantalizing premise: a fresh take on Two Solitudes and adolescence, inspired by a high school core-French teacher in rural Newfoundland; a story of three veteran humanitarian aid workers in a Kenyan refugee camp; a series of letters to one’s eighth grade self; a collection of documents based on the case of executed dancer and spy, Mata Hari, curated by a man whose father may have been among her paramours; “Still Life With Book” about a teenage boy who partakes to carve the works of John Donne into his flesh, inspiring his therapist to reinvigorate his sex life. In “Sounds of our Paleolithic Past,” a curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta mixes business with pleasure as she develops a complex relationship with a Neandertal discovered in the badlands; in the next story, a daughter considers her legacy working in the family porn business as she faces threats of violence and estrangement from her sister; in “Welcome to the Circus, Sooky Baby,” a grieving teenage girl finds solace in surprising places—including the company of an elephant; and finally, “Cancer Oratorio,” structured as a series of choral/orchestral movements from the collective perspective of a choir facing the loss of a member from cancer. But not before “God Explains the Collapse of the Cod Fishery,” which I’d previously loved in The New Quarterly, a sad and beautiful story of wonder and violence which does exactly what the title says, and contains this stunning passage:
“Sunrise is a ritual for beginnings, for re-creating, for starting over, for once more and this time with emphasis people! We all need renewal, or at least I do, and so I’ve worked a few details in here and there: bean sprouts, infants for all species, sincere apologies, and so on. Sure, there are design flaws, but sunrise isn’t one of them.”
If these stories weren’t so wondrously crafted, we’d probably say they were “quirky”, but as it is, they impress the reader with being so convincingly real, of this world, even when their premises are far outside of it. And it is this solidity too that holds together a collection of such different styles of stories, so that even if the reader never knows what she’ll encounter around the next page, she knows it’s going to be excellent. These are bright and shiny stories with an edge, like a knife-blade, in the manner of Zsuzsi Gartner, whom many of them put me in mind of—which is high praise. This is a fabulous, enthralling, exuberant book, and I think you should read it.
April 8, 2015
I thought I’d already read the book on walking. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, a book that opened my eyes to the wonders of rambling and tramping, and to how amazing is the ordinary world around us all the time. How extraordinary is the act of a single step, let alone one after another.
However extraordinary though, we are talking about walking. After Wanderlust, what else needs to be said? So I wasn’t entirely sold on Dan Rubinstein’s Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act—not at least until I opened the book. I saw that Rebecca Solnit was his epigraph (“Perhaps walking is best imagined as an ‘indicator species’ to use an ecologist’s term…”). And realized that the journey, delightfully, continues on.
Whereas Solnit’s book was a history of walking, Rubinstein spreads his net wide and attempts to capture walking right now. What does it mean? How is walking changing lives and places? The book is divided into eight sections—Body, Mind, Society, Economy, Politics, Creativity, Spirit and Family—each one inspired by a central walking narrative with plenty of room for diversions. Rubsinstein, an award-winning journalist, blends memoir, sociology, psychology, cultural commentary and reporting to show how walking connects us to our fundamental selves and also to the natural world.
In “Body”, he journeys with a team led by Dr. Stanley Vollant, an Innu surgeon whose days-long hikes through the remote wilderness reconnects First Nations people with the lives their ancestors led before communities in Northern Canada became settled, hikes that are tests of physical and spiritual strength. (Aside: a quietly groundbreaking study published in 1953 asserting that “regular physical exercise could be one of the ‘ways of life’ that promote health.” More asides: modern labs which study how and why people fall, attempting to create safer stairs—”In Canada, the social and health-care cost of accidents on stairs alone is estimated at $8.8 billion a year.” An exoskeleton that enables paralyzed people to walk. So many asides: this is a text rich and enlivened by desire lines…)
In “Mind,” Rubinstein considers “The Glasgow Effect”—Glasgow has the lowest life expectancy in Western Europe, increased circumstances of psychiatric disorders—and examines programs to counter this effect including neighbourhood walks and connecting people with natural places. This chapter also uses examples of war veterans with PTSD, and the effect of hikes upon their wellbeing. In “Society,” Rubinstein travels the streets of Philadelphia with Police Officers on foot patrol, invokes Jane Jacobs, and demonstrates how different one’s experience of a city is when lived through a car window, or as part of the sidewalk ballet.
My adoration for Born to Walk was cemented with the chapter on “Economy,” which begins with a Canada Post letter carrier making her rounds in Ottawa. What do these kind of individuals offer Jacobs’ sidewalk ballet? And are people who walk for a living happier and healthier than the rest of us? Canada Post is phasing out home delivery, although they made a profit last year and their parcel delivery service is robust due to online retailers such as Amazon. Amazon, not yet fully automated—pickers at their warehouses walk 7 to 15 miles a day, Rubinstein tells us, shifting then to ask what a lack of walking costs us economically, what might be gained by created walking and cycling infrastructure. And what about the possibilities of walking and business? He addresses the walk-around management style, and the idea of walking-meetings. He also interviews two owners of a small dog-walking business. “It pays well and it’s only a half day, so I can also work on other things that I’m interested in… And yeah, the walking. That’s probably the best part.”
In “Politics,” Rubinstein walks with Rory Stewart, a British MP who got to know his constituents by hiking around Northwestern England, going door to door, the same way he’d got to know Afghanistan in 2002, after leaving behind his job in the Foreign Service. (His journeys through Afghanistan culminated in his book, The Places in Between.) The chapter invokes Thoreau, Gandhi, marches on Washington for woman’s suffrage and for civil rights, and First Nations walks in protest in Canada.
In “Creativity,” he takes part in walking as performance art in Brooklyn, considers artists for whom walking as served as muse or medium, and learns about the role of walking in creative cognition. In “Spirit,” he partakes in a hike through Wales, and writes about famous pilgrimages including El Camino in Spain, the Hajj in Mecca and the Kumbh Mela in northern India. He writes about what it means to finish a pilgrimage…and what it means to quit. And the final chapter is “Family,” in which he writes about walking to school with his children—particularly after they were mowed down by an SUV (and it’s always an SUV, isn’t it?) at their local crosswalk. What can we do to make streets safer for children to walk to school, for everyone to walk safely? He cites surprising benefits to walking to school—not just time for conversation and physical fitness, but studies showing that children who walk to school are more deeply connected to their communities geographically and psychologically. And he writes about walking with his children, hikes through nature—how this has always been part of their experience as a family. What it gives them: time, the moment, right now.
And that’s the thing about walking—these vast ramifications, but it often comes down to a little hand in yours, always ordinary until it comes to a tiny person’s miraculous first step.
In our family, we don’t have a car, and so the decision to walk to school isn’t one we ever have to think about. A few times a year, they have a “Walk to School Day” at the school, and we think this is funny, the same way I thought it was funny when someone declared 2014 the year to read women writers. Last year when I wrote about the Rebecca Solnit book (and its companion—the picture book The Silver Button by Bob Graham), Harriet was only 4 and finding the walk to school a bit of a struggle, whereas her legs are longer now and she’s used to it—particularly when she’s unencumbered by snow pants, the walk is not a slog at all. “I was born to walk,” she told me this morning, because she is impressionable, and can read book jackets now, and I’ve been talking a lot about this one. It’s a book whose connections to the world are so multitudinous that you keep putting it down as you’re reading to share something fascinating, and then when the book is done, you go out walking down the street, and the connections all come back to the other way.
Iris, who is not quite 2, is a different creature than her sister was, bipedally speaking. She wants to walk everywhere, shouting “Walkie! Walkie!” if we dare constrain her in her stroller, and she doesn’t just want to walk—she does walk. Last Tuesday, she walked down Bloor Street from Spadina to Bay. It’s her favourite thing in the world—she seems to know everything in Rubinstein’s book innately—to be motoring on her own steam, and so completely free.
March 31, 2015
Books come from trees, and I’ve got this theory they never entirely shake their wild origins. I think this every time I’m reading outside in the spring and blossoms rain down on my book’s pages, or when a tiny midge appears and sits down at the end of a sentence. The poetry book Decomp by Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott was created from what remained of copies of Origin of Species that had been left in five distinct ecosystems to decay for a year, and I love that idea: of books and reading being so firmly embedded in nature, like they belong there. And in her extraordinary book of essays, The Big Swim, Carrie Saxifrage underlines this point, with references to literary pumpkins (Linus’s, Cinderella’s, and Peter Pumpkin Eater’s wife’s) in her essay on growing a 300 lb. squash; by recounting her grand awakening to the perils of climate change that came with reading—a series of articles by Elizabeth Kolbert; by explaining that she writes about climate change because it’s the one thing that relieves her heartbreak about understanding what we’re doing to our planet; and finally by making the natural world come alive for her reader, capturing the wonderfulness and wondrousness of nature in sparking, evocative prose.
The next best thing to a tree for a tree to be, I’d say, would be any single page in this extraordinary book.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring meets Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek meets Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, with a healthy dose of Barbara Kingsolver—perhaps Animal Vegetable Miracle, a book that woke me up to the wonders of eating by the season, local food movements, and that potato have greens—who knew? In 12 absorbing, funny, and thoughtful essays, Carrie Saxifrage connects the personal with the universal and the scientific to the spiritual to celebrate her love for the world and confront her anxiety about its fate.
It’s a perfect book for spring, I think. Partly because bunnies turn up twice. The first time in “Hare,” when Saxifrage writes about tensions between “tree-huggers and rednecks” on her home of Cortes Island, BC. A friend whose family has ties to the local logging industry dares to bridge the gap between the two groups, but it all gets very complicated. (There is a blockade at one point, and Saxifrage offers muffins to everyone on sides, and I do so like that she appreciates the value of the muffin as a political tool.) A long story and good intentions lead to Saxifrage dressing up as “The Easter Hare” (not the bunny, no, this is the pagan symbol for springtime fertility) for the Volunteer Firefighter’s Easter Brunch, but things go wrong as best intentions always do, and our heroine ends up locked in a bathroom with terrifying children threatening to break down the door. In the end, Saxifrage resolves to get on side with her friend’s family by “non-controversial public service” in the future. Hopefully there still can be muffins.
In “Lagomorphic Resonance,” Saxifrage is hiking alone in Washington State, the same places she’d visited years before with a friend who’d later died: “It still felt like some remnant of Paul and me, as we had been, remained in the place itself.” And she’s there to see the pikas, mouselike creatures who are cousins of rabbits and live high up on mountains, who “seem like one of the many improbable details of the world’s enormous diversity.” The essay is partly about rumours of the pika’s endangerment, threats to its habitat by rising temperatures due to climate change, partly about her anxiety as mother of a teenager (and this anxiety hangs over a lot of the text in a really interesting way), about loss and memory, and the tremendous glory of being alone in quiet places.
The essays aren’t so much about what they’re about as they’re about narrative, and so many facts, anecdotes, sidelines adding layers of meaning to the reading experience. In the title essay, Saxifrage swims five miles in the cold ocean between Cortes Island and Quadra Island, capturing the unsexy details of such an endeavour (her entire body covered in lanolin to protect against the cold) and the thrilling ones, about the pleasures of swimming and its movements, of immersion, the challenges of endurance. It’s one of the best bits of swim-lit I’ve ever read: “Romantically speaking, I’m part ocean mammal. I spend time thinking about how real mermaids would actually swim… I’m strongly related to the marine branch of the family tree.” And why does she she partake in the splendid agony of these five mile swims? Because they permit her to “belong…to a vast, cold world where brilliant seaweed banners wave in exultation.”
(So yes, my love of this book also isn’t just because of what the essays are about, but because of how the writing is so incredibly good.)
In “Pumpkin People,” Saxifrage attempts to make her way into the community on Cortes Island where she has arrived as a homesteader (and one who was previously an American lawyer, no less…) by participating in the annual ritual of growing outsized gourds; in “Hail Mary, Shining Sea” she is awakened to the reality of climate change and its threats to the planet, this idea mingling with notions of “goodness”; pursuing a low-carbon lifestyle, she and her husband eventually stop flying, and so it’s by Greyhound bus that she makes her way to Mexico for adventure and Spanish lessons and to be part of a shining sea in a metaphoric way. “Deep Blueberry Gestalt” is Saxifrage hiking through Vancouver’s Strathcona Park alone while reading Arne Naess’s ideas about “possibilism”: “that we must decisively come up with our view of life and find meaning in it, yet remember that more things are possible than we can imagine.”
In “The Oolichan and the Snake,” she attempts to understand First Nations opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline by taking the Greyhound for 20 hours to Kitimat in Northern BC to listen to First Nation testimony. “A lot of people don’t understand how industrious our people really were,” explains Gerald Amos, an elder of the Haisla Nation. “On this river alone, we estimate that our people harvested 600 tonnes of oolichan in the springtime. This went on for untold generations. We’ve made our living here for thousands and thousands of years without destroying it.”
“Nectar” is a beautiful story of Saxifrage’s mother’s final days, and contains one of the loveliest lines I’ve ever read: “Maybe when you love someone…you are preparing for a moment you don’t even realize will come.” “Falling into Place” is about a confluence of her mother’s death with the discovery of an ancient human jawbone on their property. “Journey to Numen Land” I loved because Saxifrage decides that sleeping a lot is radical, and she attempts to draw connections between her sleeping and waking life to fascinating ends. She returns to the water in “River Creatures,” rafting through the Grand Canyon and swimming (of course!) part way, making connections between her mother, the fossilized creatures in the canyon walls and river guides who’d gone before her: “None of them got to preserve for all time what they loved, or even completely determine their own course. Like me, they had the opportunity to study the rapids, choose their path, and find joy in the river’s firm embrace.”
March 17, 2015
No, listen, she says, the problem is no one cares about babies. I mean, they care about babies like “oh look at the cute baby” or “oh, ha ha, funny looking baby with an old man voice-over,” but no one actually cares about babies. I mean the details, it’s boring.
So let’s imagine that the ideas this book is concerned with do not matter. Let’s discuss it as a piece of literature, divorced from its subject(s). Elisa Albert’s third novel, After Birth, is an angry, passionate, gnarly and perfect mess of a novel that echoes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper in style and tone (and exclamation marks!), and also Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and more recently Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs for the force of its rage. Its narrator, Ari, at one point references her favourite Grace Paley story (“Wants”). Which is to say that this is a novel constructed on a strong literary tradition. Its short clipped sentences are notes and dispatches from a place of confusion, attempts to reconcile life itself with one’s expectations of it, and other realities including people’s Facebook profiles and feminist theory. The notes and dispatches do not comprise a plot so much as a circling round of a fact, a record of a winter of inertia. So what moves the book forward then? Well, voice, first—Ari’s is distinct, disturbing, unnerving, frustrating, funny and smart. Second is her vision of the world, which is peculiar and her remarkable articulation of it. And third is curiosity—something’s gotta give. Will she be broken? Will her rage be quashed? And are these two questions actually one and the same? Albert’s first-person address is so solid, so realized, that it gives the impression of having been carved out of something larger, chiseled, rather than built up from the ground. Nothing is incidental or extraneous in her prose. The book and its narrator are exhausting to encounter, frustrating, untameable, and brilliant.
No, listen, though, the problem is with books, with novels about motherhood. Or even worse, those novels that purport to finally pull back the veil and “tell the truth about motherhood.” The problem, in addition to the fact that nobody cares about babies, is that a book about motherhood is rarely read (if it is read at all) as a book about a mother. Instead, it’s a manifesto. Read as a statement on an institution instead of a literary work about a fictional character. A story. We have a hard time grasping that there can be more than one story about motherhood, or if there is more than one, there’s just two then, always diametrically opposed. Two gals facing down on the cover of a magazine. One is always carrying a briefcase. When in reality, there are so many stories, and each of those stories comprise so many stories in themselves, the same way that a single day can hold more than one kind of weather.
“The buildings are amazing in this shitbox town,” is the first line of After Birth, which isn’t nuanced, but it kind of is. And readers and reviewers rarely know what to do with that.
No listen, the problem is that there are the early days of motherhood, and then there is what happens a while after that, when you’ve finally got it figured out, and you feel obligated to go out and deliver everybody else from the darkness. This was the point at which I sent my cousin a completely revised version of her baby registry, when I would start to hyperventilate at the idea of a friend choosing not to co-sleep, when I wanted to chase desperate looking women down who were pushing strollers down the street and put my arms around them, promise them everything was going to be okay. Which was surely the last thing these sorry people needed. And some of them weren’t even sorry. It took me a long time to understand that.
“In the cafe where I never work on my dissertation is the woman I’ve seen at the co-op with her brand-new baby. We smile./ Do you ever feel like you’re completely losing your mind?/ Her smile fades./ It’s okay if you do. It’s perfectly normal.”
No, listen, the problem is women. How we look at other women as mirrors, desperate for affirmation. But it’s always slightly unnerving to look in a mirror, and the reflection is inevitably backwards. Albert’s novel references a 1990s third-wave feminist utopia, Ani DiFranco. Dar Williams singing, “I will not be afraid of women.” But even when we’re not afraid, women are not always good to each other. Like people in general, women are like that. Perhaps more so because of the way in which we’re set up for failure in our engagement, taught to see others as opponents. Ari’s stepmother is an evil feminine archetype, her cousin becomes Bridezilla, and she herself occupied a nasty role as “the other woman” before she married her husband (though she’s not self-aware enough to interrogate this idea. Or is too much so.) She documents her history with female roommates at university, at a private girls high school, at Jewish summer camp, with not one but two moms’ groups. Women are ever disappointing.
Women are ever disappointing for a variety of reasons, both women in the book and women in the world, but part of the problem is that we’re forever looking for that mirror, for affirmation.
“Do you ever feel like you’re completely losing your mind?/ Her smile fades./ It’s okay if you do. It’s perfectly normal.”
“I’m v happy to see women engaging and disagreeing. Most necessary. Interrogation is essential,” wrote my friend Anakana Schofield in a tweet last week, in response to Jessa Crispin on Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and being tired of female pain (and I’d noted that Jamison was tired of people who were tired of it.)
I think that this is a very good point. We need to know how to look at other women without looking for our own reflection. We need to learn to disagree and not end up shattering glass.
“Two hundred years ago—hell, one hundred years ago—you’d have a child surrounded by other women: your mother, her mother, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law. And you’d be a teenager too, too young to have had any kind of life yourself. You’d share childcare with a raft of women. They’d help you, keep you company, show you how.”
No, listen, the problem is we have no rafts of women. With After Birth, as with so many other books about mothers, the problem is not motherhood itself, but instead a motherhood that puts a woman apart from the world, both in practical terms (Ari is removed from familiar surroundings in a new town, isolated while her husband is oblivious and busy with his work) and theoretical ones (remember? No one cares about babies. Ari’s concerns are nobody else’s, her’s alone). Her own mother is dead (and Ari’s memories of her are rife with anger at her mother’s anger—interestingly, it doesn’t seem to occur to her to wonder what her mother was so angry about) and she has no sister. She’s estranged from her Aunt, and her from her heritage (it seems) but marrying a man who isn’t Jewish.
“Here’s the problem: we are taught nothing. / How to sew, grow food, preserve food, build things, fix things, make fires, birth babies, care for babies, feed babies, move through time, grow old, die, grieve, change, sit still, be quiet.”
Here’s another problem though: was there ever really a raft of women?
Two hundred years ago, I thought as I read this, you probably would have died.
Moreover, while Ari craves the idea of this raft of women, she has spent much of her own life setting herself adrift from any semblance of one. She doesn’t wish to be anything like her own mother, or be the same kind of mother. She sees her baby as the chance for a fresh start. She wants a natural birth, to breastfeed, to eschew all things toxic and synthetic—her mothering to be nothing like the way her own generation was mothered. She wants a link that’s wholly illusory.
After Birth is a fascinating companion to Eula Biss’s On Immunity. I couldn’t help but wonder what Ari would have done had she met a woman like Biss in one of her moms’ groups, a woman who in her book thanks the mothers with whom she’d shared the conversations and preoccupations of early motherhood: “These mothers helped me understand how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are… I am writing to and from the women who complicated the matter of immunization for me…In a culture that relishes pitting women against each other in ‘mommy wars,’ I feel compelled to leave some traces on the page of another kind of argument. This is a productive, necessary argument—an argument that does not reduce us, as the diminutive mommy implies, and does not resemble war.”
Albert too demonstrates how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are. This isn’t really a book “about” motherhood at all, but instead, motherhood is its starting point.
Like many of the women in Biss’s book, Ari feels, and indeed has been, failed by the medical establishment. Her unhappiness in motherhood she puts down to the trauma of her c-section. When her friend acknowledges the experience as a kind of rape, Ari feels gratified for just a moment. And perhaps this is the link to her maternal lineage, Ari’s own particular raft of women: her own mother died from cancer caused by drugs her grandmother had taken in pregnancy to avert miscarriage. Those same drugs had left her mother with mutilated reproductive organs so that Ari herself was only conceived and born by remarkable chance. The rape too—her grandmother was raped by Nazi soldiers during the Holocaust. Survived only, Ari tells us, by having sex with them.
Naturally, the idea of witches appeals to her, of women back in history who banded together, who possessed the wisdom of how to deliver babies and cure illness (and even vaccinate, as Biss tells us). She rescues a new friend, Mina, from the throes of early motherhood by nursing her baby, an age-old practice. The two of them set up a raft of their own, and for a time, this is everything.
(I was once so angry at having had a c-section that I was given a pamphlet for a support group that helps women heal from and grieve their c-section experiences. “What kind of bullshit is this?” I was exclaiming and my terrible husband with an evil glint in his eye said, “I think you should go.” I protested and he shrugged calmly: “You’ve been grieving your c-section for four years,” he said. My fist shook at the ceiling. “I am allowed,” I told him, “to grieve my c-section and find c-section support groups totally stupid.” You can see how Ari was someone for whom I had great empathy.)
No, listen, the problem is that no one ever talks about this stuff. Or maybe that when they do talk, nobody listens. See point one: Nobody cares about babies.
“Adrienne Rich had it right. No one gives a crap about motherhood unless they can profit off it. Women are expendable and the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s going to write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it?”
(Or perhaps it’s that even those who are listening have no context. [“Could it be true that one has to experience in order to understand? I have always denied this idea, and yet of motherhood, for me at least, it seems to be the case.”—Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work].)
Here is something I love about After Birth: Albert doesn’t think that a novel about new motherhood need read like the catalogue for a hipster baby boutique. The stuff is not the stuff, she knows. Stuff is lazy shorthand. It’s a way of getting away from the point.
There is so much I love about how Albert captures the crisis of new motherhood in After Birth. (Her non-fiction piece on this in the Guardian is one of the best things I have ever read about this topic.)
“The baby books said nothing about this. Days became nights became days because nights.” And, “So the dissertation thing is pretty much a lie. But you need an identity, some interest and occupation outside having a kid, you just do. Otherwise the kid will be your sole interest and occupation, and we all know how that works out for everyone.”
And, “I did not understand how there could be no break. No rest. There was just no end to it. It went on and on and on.”
And, “When I see pregnant women, I want to take them by their shoulders and shake. I mean shake. Are you ready?”
And, “I nurse while she pumps to encourage supply. She says something about it being difficult to get out when the weather’s so shitty and I say something like yeah, winter’s a shitty time to have a baby and she says something like it’s always kind of a shitty time to have a baby though isn’t it?”
The problem, sweetheart, is you.
This is a line delivered by the ghost of Ari’s bitch mother near the end of novel when Ari finally confesses, “Fine, I do hate women… They’re so obedient, traitorous. Descendants of the ones who gave up other women as witches.”
Her mother’s line is important because it’s kind of true, in particular as suggested by the novel’s final sentence. The problem is Ari, because she is a specific literary character and not a statement on womankind or motherhood (and many a commenter on Goodreads seems to have difficulty understanding this distinction). She’s a fascinating, messed-up, smart and self-destructive literary character. She doesn’t affirm anything. You will think she is wrong about a lot of things. But this doesn’t mean she’s not worth reading. In some ways, it makes her so much more worth reading than any literary character whose story can be tied up in a perfect bow.
The line is also important as a statement on motherhood though, an idea I’m still teasing out. That while indeed the problem is that women are all too isolated in early motherhood (and they are), it’s not just that other women don’t save us, but that they can’t. That every woman has to discover her own way through. Naomi Stadlen writes about this in a book called What Mothers Do that I found troubling for its simplistic notions and failure to understand maternal ambivalence, but the following passage in one of the smartest I’ve ever encountered on the subject:
“If she feels disoriented, this is not a problem requiring bookshelves of literature to put right. No, it is exactly the right state of mind for the teach-yourself process that lies ahead of her. Every time a woman has a baby she has something to learn, partly from her culture but also from her baby. If she really considered herself an expert, or if her ideas were set, she would find it very hard to adapt to her individual baby. Even after her first baby, she cannot sit back as an expert on all babies. Each child will be a little different and teach her something new. She needs to feel uncertain in order to be flexible. So, although it can feel so alarming, the ‘all-at-sea’ feeling is appropriate. Uncertainty is a good starting point for a mother. Through uncertainty, she can begin to learn.”
And she does learn—this is the thing. Perhaps even Ari will. And not long after the end of the first year (which for me was when storm had ceased, I could see the shapes of things, but trauma was still so recent, and I wrote this) those early days begin to fade. Motherhood itself becomes less all-consuming (literally and figuratively), one’s rage at having a c-section or not becomes less potent, the baby becomes a human, breastfeeding is no longer such a preoccupation, sharing parental duties becomes easier, you sleep more, and it’s all less boring and shattering.
Which is to say that Elisa Albert has documented a very particular moment in motherhood in After Birth, instead of motherhood in general. And that this insistence upon specificity—in spite of her narrator’s generalized wailing in collective pronouns (which is what trips less-careful readers up, I think), in spite of the moments in which our identification with her is visceral—is the novel’s greatest strength. Specificity is what turns a political statement (and oh, this is one) into literature.
March 9, 2015
I will admit it: until recently, I was one of those parents whose children weren’t vaccinated due to my concerns about a number of toxic ingredients found in vaccines. But then when people started sharing vitriolic and expletive-filled Facebook statuses and tweets about “fucking anti-vaxxers” whose children deserved to die of smallpox, they really convinced me, and I finally came around and saw the error of my ways.
Okay, none of the above is true. First, because my children received their vaccines on schedule. But mostly because the described scenario doesn’t exist—no one’s going to change her mind in this climate. The rhetoric surrounding the vaccine “debate” is so inflamed and divisive that as it stands that there is no hope of reconciliation. I also have some sympathy for parents who doubt the safety or necessity of vaccines. While I have absolute trust in my doctor and her advice, and in the importance of vaccines for public health, I was one of the many people who put down that fear-mongering story in The Toronto Star last month on the HPV vaccine and said, “My kids are never going to get that.” And then the whole furor blew up, and I saw how we’d been played.
Which is the point at which I decided to read On Immunity by Eula Biss. Biss, poet and award-winning essayist, wades into the vaccine issue, not to seek a middle-ground—because she acknowledges that there isn’t one; the science is conclusive; her own child is vaccinated—but to seek context, to create something richer than a polemic. More than a book on “issues”, even, this is a book on language and metaphor, about how both frame the way we understand our bodies and our world, and about vaccinations and immunity might serve as a metaphor for America and the world today. “And it has vampires in it,” so notes the blurb on the back by Rebecca Solnit. Because, yes, this book is blurbed by Rebecca Solnit AND Anne Fadiman, which makes it basically a non-fiction holy book. And it is oh so very good.
Biss begins with the myths and fairytales, those stories in which “parents…have a maddening habit of getting tricked into making bad gambles with their children’s lives.” Including the myth of Achilles whose mother seeks his immortality. Biss writes, “Immunity is a myth, these stories suggest, and no mortal can ever be made invulnerable,” and considers the desperate ways in which parents seek to protect their children from their fates.
Her son was born as H1N1 panic spread across the world, around the same time my elder daughter was. I remember lining up for hours at Metro Hall downtown for the flu vaccines we were eligible for because we resided with a member of the vulnerable segment of the population. “It was not a good season for trust,” Biss writes, as financial markets were crumbling and many people were considering the response to the H1N1 panic to be overblown, a plot by big-pharma, the vaccine’s components considering dubious by many in the chattering-mother set.
Biss invokes Bram Stroker’s Dracula, a story that serves as a metaphor for disease. “What makes Dracula particularly terrifying, and what takes the plot of the story so long to resolve, is that he is a monster whose monstrosity is contagious.” And the story, she continues, is as much about the problem of evidence and truth as it is about vampires. How do we ever know what we know?
Public health, Biss notes, is rarely seen by members of the middle class as intended for “people like us.” She uses the example of prominent anti-vaccine campaigner Dr. Bob Sears who writes of the hep B vaccines, “This is an important vaccine from a public health standpoint, but it’s not as critical from an individual point of view.” Biss explains, “In order for this to make sense, one must believe that individuals are not part of the public.” But such a limited perspective is hardly novel, Biss shows shows, with historical epidemics thought to be the scourge of foreigners and outsiders (like Dracula!), and poor black people forced at gunpoint to be vaccinated in Kentucky a century ago. Historically, vaccination of those living in poverty would have benefited the wealthy, whereas the tables have now turned—the vaccination of children who live in privilege now serves to protect the vulnerable (in terms of income level and health). Biss extends her examination of this switch: “If it was meaningful for the poor [historically] to assert were not purely dangerous, I suspect it might be just as meaningful now for the rest of us to accept that we are not purely vulnerable. The middle class may be ‘threatened’, but we are still, just by virtue of having bodies, dangerous.”
But we feel threatened, we do. Here, Biss returns to poor season for trust, and explains how risk perception has more to do with fear than quantifiable risk. “Perhaps what matters,” Biss quotes the scholar Cass Sunstein has saying, “is not whether people are right on the facts but whether they are frightened.” And we certainly live in a culture of fear, which is ever heightened. Which has recently manifested in a paranoia against chemicals, countered with a strange faith that nature itself is benevolent. But vaccines, note Biss, reside where between the two: “vaccines are of that liminal place between humans and nature—a mowed field.” She further complicates the issue by using the example of the Americas’ native populations, decimated by disease after the arrival of Europeans: “Considering this course of events ‘natural’ favours the perspective of the people who subsequently colonized the land, but it fails to satisfy the ‘not made or caused by humankind’ definition of the term.”
Nothing is straightforward, and science writing, and misperceptions of science writing, skews things. Did you know that there is no causal link between DDT and cancers? I didn’t. I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, her book that sparked a revolution by suggesting there is no boundary between the human body and its environment, and while this is indeed the case, and while spraying DDT from airplanes over towns and vast tracts of farmland is indeed dangerous and does irreparable damage to ecosystems, Silent Spring‘s greatest legacy, as noted by journalist Tina Rosenberg, is that it’s “killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.” Malaria has resurged in countries where DDT is no longer used against mosquitos. While Carson recognized the utility of DDT for disease prevention, Biss writes, “the enduring power of her book owes less to its nuances than its capacity to induce horror…. Like the plot of Dracula, the drama of Silent Spring depends on emblematic oppositions.”
Biss traces the origins of vaccines to folk medicine, practiced by women until they were pushed out of their positions of power in their communities by the medical establishment (men who pushed women into unsanitary hospitals to have their babies, many of whom would die there because these doctors didn’t know to wash their hands). Biss notes the strange relationship between anti-vaccine mothers and vaccination itself, both born out of the same anti-establishment systems that seek/sought to undermine women and their intuitive knowledge vs. scientific fact. This is certainly not a story about emblematic oppositions after all. But still, not a reason to turn away from science altogether. We need science, notes Biss, via Donna Harraway. “Where it is not built on social domination, science can be liberating.”
My very favourite part of this book, whose every bit I appreciated so much, was the end-note to page 8 (and it’s a testament to the goodness of On Immunity that I read its notes in entirety. I didn’t want the book to end). Biss writes something that reads like an echo of my introduction to The M Word, about motherhood being one’s occupation and preoccupation in the early days, about all those conversations about motherhood between new mothers making sense of their world, which is also the world. And this is what I find so exciting about this book, that such a work of literature can be from those “productive and necessary” conversations.
“These mothers helped me understand how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are… I am writing to and from the women who complicated the matter of immunization for me…In a culture that relishes pitting women against each other in ‘mommy wars,’ I feel compelled to leave some traces on the page of another kind of argument. This is a productive, necessary argument—an argument that does not reduce us, as the diminutive mommy implies, and does not resemble war.”
January 14, 2015
UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to note the extraordinary ends to which Lane uses the sinister implications of classic children’s literature, including Goodnight Moon and “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree”. So very good.
There is such a descriptor as sippy-cup sinister.
“I’m reading a terrifying book about a woman with a newborn,” I told my husband, who went pale then, because a woman with a newborn is the most terrifying thing he’s ever known.
“I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it,” write Leslie Jamison in “Grand Unified: Theory of Female Pain,” from The Empathy Exams, and I sometimes feel similarly about the reading of the burdens of motherhood.
It’s a burden documented in vivid detail in Her, the second novel by journalist Harriet Lane. The novel is a mash-up, one scene after another presented from two points of view. One from Emma, recently a mother of two, in her late thirties, struggling to get the stroller up the steps as her three-year-old clamours for her attention, and the baby cries, and she contemplates her life, wondering where her once-self—a successful journalist, happy and carefree—has got to. And then the other, from Nina, who spies Emma from a distance, knows her from long ago, and becomes determined to work her way into the other woman’s life to enact some form of revenge.
To Emma, hoever, Nina—a successful painter, her own daughter nearly grown—is a saviour, always turning up at the right time, offering Emma exactly what she needs, providing a glimpse of the world outside, of the life she’d like to have. Nina is a respite from the drudgery of a schedule Emma describes as full of tasks all both so urgent and tedious, breaking the day into useless pieces, rendering the whole thing as just scraps. But why is Nina so interested in her? It’s a nagging question, but one that Emma pushes to the back of her mind, which is already overwhelmed by lack of sleep, stress, financial worries, marital strife, and general ennui. She’s so vulnerable, which Nina recognizes instantly, and realizes she can prey on.
Which makes Her so compelling, so beyond those other narratives which tire me whose only virtue is their honesty, is that the truths revealed about new motherhood are just the starting point. From here, Lane has created a psychological thriller so convincing in its reality, so ominous in its mundanity, so sippy-cup sinister in a manner I last recall reading in Emily Perkins’ excellent 2008 book, A Novel About My Wife.
Nina gets closer and closer to Emma, welcomed into her home, caring for her children, and while we know along she has nefarious intentions—presented in the alternating chapters which, like Emma’s, are written in first-person—we don’t know why she’s out to exact revenge from Emma, who doesn’t remember her at all. We don’t know either which form her revenge will take, though as the novel progresses, indicators emerge, signs and signals that are so terrifying, all hurtling towards the novel’s very end, which is completely and utterly devastating. Not to mention amazing. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
It’s a page-turner, but the reader will be slowed by Lane’s prose, the pitch-perfect imagery and descriptions, which are to be savoured. By the nuance too, suggesting the motherhood (and everything) is a many-sided reality after all. And the reader will be chilled by Lane’s suggestion that danger lurks even in the safest of places, that the most heightened maternal vigilance might never be enough.