August 23, 2016
While Zoe Whittall has made a career of writing about misfits and outlaws (which is part of the title of an anthology she edited in the early 2000’s), she turns the tables in her latest novel by writing about a family of unremarkable (were it not for their resolute upstandingness) middle class people who suddenly become misfits and outlaws in their very own lives. The book is The Best Kind of People, which I read on my summer vacation and handed directly to my husband when he asked me what book he should read next. And the family is the Woodburys, the patriarch of whom shocks his wife and children and entire community when he’s accused of sexual assaulting girls at the high school where he teaches.
“How could a person do such a thing?” is the kind of question that tends to be raised after the fact, although Whittall is more interested in another question with wider ramifications, which is, “How can the people around that person, the people who love that person, who did it make sense of their lives and the world once he has?” Joan Woodbury tries to make sense of her past and her future—what was her marriage all of these years, and who is she going to become outside of the relationship that has so long defined her? She deals with threats and violence against her home and family, hears the whispers and the rumours, and knows that many people implicate her along with her husband, because as his wife, how could she not have known?
Her daughter carries many of the same burdens with her at school, and is forced to reconcile her own burgeoning sexuality with her father’s egregious crimes, not to mention falls in with a group of Men’s Rights Activists who try to use her and her father as a pawn for their cause. And when the Woodbury’s son returns home from his life in New York to take care of his family and support his father, he’s forced to confront his own difficult past as a gay boy coming of age in a small conservative town.
Similar to Joan Thomas’s novel, The Opening Sky, The Best Kind of People ponders how the politics and morality of well-meaning, liberal-minded people are tested when they find themselves in situations they never expected. In Whittall’s book, the result is a complicated range of emotions and reactions, and while she puts her characters through test after test, the result every time in believable, entirely (and sometimes unbearably) human. There is so much nuance here, but the book is also devourable, utterly gripping, unfolding with the pace of a thriller and also that hard to put down, as the case unfolds day by day and then week by week, right up until the trial.
While the entire book is fantastic, Whittall gets full points for her spectacular ending, however, which turns the story inside out and disturbingly rips us away from the singular perspectives of characters to reflect the wider culture of rape and sexual violence against whose context the entire novel has been taking place. Which is to say that this is not just a story about a family.
And then the final sentence, which will haunt you long after you’ve finally finished reading, quiet, subtle, devastating and terrible, just like the injustice that is Justice, which isn’t anything like justice at all.
July 26, 2016
I loved Alice Zorn’s Five Roses, a novel that’s a love letter to Montreal, its neighbourhoods, and to the magic and serendipity of city life that is inevitably born from the fact of so many characters living in close proximity. It’s a bit of a mess, it is, city life, what with different cultures, and types of people, and old traditions and new traditions, and money and poverty, home and commercial enterprise, and history and the moment, which is now, and impossible to capture anyway…because the only thing that ever stands still in the city is the force of change. Zorn’s novel, however, manages to convey all this and not be a mess, disparate narratives woven together in a way that sparks magic but is left just untidy enough to still ring true.
To still be authentic. This is the kind of thing that matters not only in a novel, but also in the city, and when Fara and her husband embark to buy their first home, authenticity is what they’re seeking. Something real and solid, not a poorly constructed condo where walls are thin and the rain gets in. Unfortunately, the kind of thing they have in mind lies far outside their price range…except for a house in the Pointe St.-Charles neighbourhood of Montreal. It’s a working class neighbourhood, although most of the industry is gone. The signs are still there though, quite literally in the case of the iconic Farine Five Roses sign, from where Zorn’s novel gets its name. The first time Fara walks through the neighbourhood, she hears the sound of old men playing horseshoes, not a sound one hears very often anymore. The houses in Pointe St. Charles are only just starting to be unaffordable, the neighbourhood becoming gentrified. The biker gangs are history. Many of the houses still have their original features, woodwork, which is another way of saying that the people who live there have never had the privilege of moving up in the world, even via renovation. There is poverty, local residents being classed out of their neighbourhood by newcomers like Fara and her husband…although the only reason they were able to afford the house they got is because the son of the previous resident committed suicide. A story like that is bound to bring down the value.
Five Roses is very much about real estate, about owning a house, which is also to say that it’s about making a home. Fara herself is not put off by her new home’s unsavoury history, or at least she imagines she won’t be. She doesn’t find suicide shocking, her sister having killed herself years before. But it turns out that her new home awakens fears and anxieties Fara had thought she would have put away by now. She cannot help but feel the uncanny presence of something in her house…although that presence will prove less otherworldly than she’s imagining. Her next-door neighbour, Maddy, could have filled her in, because she’s seen who’s been watching the place from her view on her back patio. But she keeps her mouth shut. Maddy, who’s lived in her home in Pointe-St Charles ever since the place was a hippie commune, and she’s got her own sad story about the baby she lost decades ago. Which brings us to the final point of this trinity, Rose, a strange young woman adjusting to the city after an isolated childhood in a cabin with her mother in a small town up north. Rose works in the same hospital as Fara, and her roommate is a work colleague of Maddy at a bakery at the Atwater Market, just across the river from Pointe St. Charles (and oh, the food references in this novel are wonderful and hunger-inducing). Which are the kind of connections that happen in a city, how one life brushes up against another. The subtle, often known and yet profound ways in which we touch each other and change each other’s lives. It is in the nature of the city that story happens—and a testament to Zorn’s talent that in her book she makes it all seem to happen so naturally.
The stories don’t all intersect in the ways one might expect, which makes this character-driven novel more gripping than you might think of about a book without a whole lot of plot. Both Maddy and Fara begin come to terms with their painful histories, and begin to settle the ghosts in their respective homes—both literally and figuratively. And the younger Rose begins the process of making her own place in the city, finding a place to make art in a converted industrial building, and falling in love for the first time with a man who squats in an abandon factory who is perhaps even more of a misfit than she is. It’s not perfect, but it’s all possible, possibility being the most valuable thing that a city can offer.
Well, that, of course, and also the wonders of a terrific baguette.
July 21, 2016
Joan Haggerty’s The Dancehall Years is a perfect summer book, rich and sweeping, the kind of book you’d like to give a week to, on a dock perhaps, or a comfortable deck chair beside the water. It begins in 1939 on Bowen Island, which is home to a fancy hotel whose custom comes courtesy of the steamship lines, and whose grounds are meticulously maintained by Shinsuke Yoshito, the Japanese gardener. His son is Takumi, the lifeguard, who is romantically involved with Isabelle, the youngest Gallagher daughter, much to the consternation of her father. The Gallaghers have a summer rental on Bowen Island, and make use of the hotel facilities, the dancehall. All this action observed by Isabelle’s niece, Gwen, who is the novel’s heart, six years old when the novel opens, her point of view gloriously unfiltered.
Of course, everything is going to change. The summer of 1939 would be the last one before the outbreak of war in Europe, everything changing even further after the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941. Japanese-Canadians along the coast would be taken to internment camps, their properties confiscated by authorities. Not to mention the end of the steamship lines, and cultural changes that would make Bowen Island a very different place by the time the 1960s roll around, when Gwen is a young mother, having left an unhappy marriage and trying to make a life for herself and her two daughters, all the while trying to reconcile unanswered questions from her family’s history.
Like, where did the Yoshitos go? What happened to Takumi? Not to mention Isabelle, once Gwen’s gay young aunt who is now semi-estranged from the family, taking care of her husband who’d come back damaged from the war. There had been a child, we know, although Gwen doesn’t, and was she given up for adoption, or did she die, as Isabelle had been told she did, a heartache she carries with her down through the decades. There are also questions about Gwen’s parents own marriage, her mother’s unhappiness, the question of her family’s inheritance and where it came from, and what do we do with all this history, this stuff we carry down with us, this freight.
Joan Haggerty is an extraordinary writer, her prose Woolfian in its stream of consciousness, its immediacy. This is a saga sweeping four decades written in the present tense. And it’s true that when we talk about summer books, we sometimes mean that they’re a bit light in substance, but this is a different kind of summer book. It’s not difficult, and it’s got its own kind of lightness (strung together by summers as it is), but it’s not a “beach read.” Which isn’t to say it would be wonderful to read it at a beach, but still, it’s not the kind of novel that would blow away in the breeze.
And it’s so good. Two decades in the making. Haggerty is in her seventies, and her last book was The Invitation in 1994, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. The Dancehall Years is published by the small but mighty Mother Tongue Publishing, based on Salt Spring Island, BC, and I’m disappointed it’s not available in-store at large Canadian book retailers because it would make a perfect addition to a summer books display—that cover is so perfect. But fear not, determined reader, for you can track this fine novel down, via an online bookseller or direct from the publisher.
And I really do urge to you to do so, for your own sake. For perfect summer book reasons.
Prepare to be swept away.
July 5, 2016
Being white, I have the luxury of not having to think about race very often, and so when I first heard about Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam, what occurred to me was not that this was a brown skinned person writing about white people, but that this was a man who was bothering to write about women. I mean, I know women who are nervous to write about women out of fear of what men might think of them, so it was this that seemed like a tremendous risk to me. But it wasn’t just the novelty—the very first time I read Rumaan Alam at all was in his article in Elle, “Raising Two Boys As Feminists Without a Mother.” Which made clear to me that I wanted to read more of what he’d written, and about women in particular because of the singularity of his viewpoint and its insight. Although Rich and Pretty is the kind of book I’d want to read no matter who had written it, being as fond as I am of well written novels about people making lives in New York during those pivotal moments when futures are still laid out before them.
It’s Elena Ferrante but light, a novel about female friendship that, just as Ferrante does, acknowledges the spectrum between love and hate that embodies a decades-long relationship between two women. It’s a novel that puts marriage on the sidelines and make friendship its love story, and like any love story, things are complicated. The book begins with Sarah, the rich friend, announcing her engagement, to Dan, who Lauren (“pretty”) thinks is boring, just one of the many things unspoken between them. Sarah, who’s always initiating the get-togethers with Lauren, even though she’s the one who’s so busy. The two friends about thirty, settling into their lives after growing up together, high school and university. Sarah’s career aspirations are vague, but she doesn’t need to bother with that end of things so much, and now she’s getting married. She wishes similar things for her friend, who seems much less interested in being “matched” than Sarah thinks she should be. At one point their lives were very much the same (even with the rich and pretty distinctions) but at some inevitable point their paths diverged, and how does a friendship (a relationship that’s meant to be as peripheral to life itself as it is to the literary canon) navigate the journey of a lifetime? In particular those turbulent, essential years between 20 and 40 when when seems to live at least six lifetimes in a decade or two.
I really loved this book. I loved its humour, its prose, its quietness and detail. I loved its subtle subversions—second abortions and pregnant women with a drink. I loved the difference between the two characters’ voices, how richly the two were delineated, and that the title is tongue-in-cheek—in a Mad Men fashion, Alam’s novel takes the idea of “types” of women and a binary approach to womanhood and complicates the idea entirely to show that women can be whole, flawed, inexplicable and fully realized people whose lives and experiences are worth writing about, thinking about. Which really shouldn’t be such a revelation, and this is still a completely excellent book for those of us who already know.
June 1, 2016
If you didn’t hear my book recommendations today on CBC Ontario Morning, you can listen to them here (at around 41 minutes). I love each of these books so thoroughly, and was so pleased to be able to talk about them. Although I am very sorry for getting Cherie Dimaline’s last name wrong and for confusing her First Nation. She is in fact from a Metis community on Georgian Bay. And you should definitely read her book, A Gentle Habit—it’s terrific. The other books were A Cast of Falcons, by Steve Burrows; I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid; The Most Heartless Town in Canada, by Elaine McCluskey; and Flannery, by Lisa Moore.
May 25, 2016
Okay, I promise you this is the last one, the last time I write a post this week imploring you to pick up a certain book because it’s really fantastic. A list of books to be read can only be so long, I know, but here’s just one more. And I promise you that I actually should be going to bed right now, because it’s eleven o’clock and I’m tired, but first I want to tell you about Double Teenage, by Joni Murphy. A book that I had plenty of reasons to be initially deterred from—my own fatigue/discomfort with books about girls who do drugs and self-harm, a notion that perhaps the book was far too cool for me (as are girls who do drugs and self-harm), and I know nothing about French cinema, plus also its engagement with critical theory. I once made the mistake of embarking upon a Masters degree with no knowledge theoretical frameworks (somehow I missed these during my undergrad, which was mainly survey courses on The Faerie Queen), and it was a terrible disaster, and so a novel that engages with these ideas would normally make me run like the wind…but I didn’t. Because I wanted to read a novel about female friendship. Because the first section of the book is called, “No Country For Young Girls.” Because of the line, “In this world/ there were two kinds of girls,/ Celine and Julie were neither.”
Celine and Julie are growing up in New Mexico, a border town. They meet as part of a community theatre production, and Murphy plays with notions of girlhood as a stage/stage. We see both characters performing girlhood, growing up and away from their parents, because witness and victims of violence. They watch television shows (Law and Order and Twin Peaks) and listen to news reports, these ideas along with their own sexual experiences informing their understandings of women’s bodies and who they belong to and what they are to be used for. After high school gradation and a few years at a local college, both women depart for further afield, Julie to Vancouver to Celine to Chicago. And here they fall out of touch, and yet their stories remain connected, however obliquely. The narrative engages with missing and murdered women along the border in Mexico, and with the Robert Pickton case in Vancouver:
“What are the chances that the girls would live so close to two sites of the slow-motion mass murder of girls? / What are the chances?/ Good I guess.”
The last line of the book: “This is a spell for getting out of girlhood alive.” Murphy showing that the threat is from without just as much as it’s from within, just as much as society conspires toward the latter, how many people profit by it, when a girl’s body is turned into something to be consumed. That perhaps there’s really no distinction between the two.
“This is a world with syringes filled with blue liquid and faux fur-lined handcuffs, night-vision goggles and Spanish fly aphrodisiac, wallet photos of children in pink ruffles and velvet paintings of moonlit mountains. This is a world with things we have made.”
I’m nearly an exact contemporary of Celine and Julie, of Murphy even, and so I related to this story on a very personal, visceral level. (The part about Julie and her mother driving from Washington to New Mexico listening to Graceland: “They would be able to sing along with Graceland for the rest of their lives.” Later Celine contemplates heartbreak: “Everyone can see you’re blown apart.”)
Columbine, the protests in Quebec City in 2001, the day Saddam Hussein was hanged: our sorry cultural touchstones.
It’s heavy, but it’s not. I read this book all day on Sunday, a few hours in the afternoon in my hammock. I devoured it, and loved the shape of the project—that this is a novel gesturing outwards, pointing to the world, using the world and its threads to build something new, offering structure, frameworks, where we hadn’t seen such a thing before. Daring to state that girlhood is significant, even if it’s a stage, and even if it’s a stage. I loved the poetry of Murphy’s prose, the power of her language. The power of the book full stop—it’s both the story of my life and also unlike anything I’ve ever read before.
May 24, 2016
Would you agree that the very best worst problem in the world to have is the one where you keep reading stunning book after stunning book, but absolutely don’t have the time to write about them? Or especially to write about them with the care and attention each individual book deserves? Or when you read a book with the explicit intention of not actually writing about it, that’s going to be all for pleasure, because this book came out a year ago anyway and was a finalist for a National Book Award and so surely doesn’t need you to blow its horn. And yet you have to? Because to love a book is to talk about a book, and I want everybody to know about this one.
The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy, which I bought after reading Doree Shafrir’s piece at Buzzfeed, Why America is Ready for Novelist Angela Flournoy. And I had a feeling that I was, ready that is. The piece begins: ‘I’m driving through Detroit in a rented Ford sedan with the author Angela Flournoy, and it’s hard not to think that Google Maps is deliberately trying to get us to avoid the city’s ghosts. “It keeps wanting to — I’m just going to say, avoid things. Because this is a city that always wants to put you on a freeway.” ‘ And it was such a fantastic premise for an article, the disembodied GPS voice always threatening to throw the piece off-route, and Detroit to me is such a compelling setting for a story. I have this habit while reading books set in Detroit of doing Google street view searches for places mentioned in the text, and what I find on those streets is always stranger than my imagination—blocks of empty lots, overgrown sidewalks, here and there scattered a house, sometimes upkept, but often abandoned. Burned out shells. It seems strange that this place is real, streets on which actual people live.
Although Yarrow Street, portrayed in Flournoy’s novel, is fictional. And the world that she creates in her novel is one that seems familiar to me. In the Buzzfeed profile, she explains that she consciously didn’t draw attention to the blight in her book, to the things that would seem familiar and unremarkable to anybody who lives in the neighbourhood she writes about. “So imagine if you lived here every day of your life—it becomes part of the landscape. So I try to just be accurate in characterization. And that’s where the challenge is. Because I want other people to see this place like they’ve never seen it. I’m gonna point out the things that are interesting, but I also don’t want to focus too long on things that are not the things that you focus on if you live here.”
Yarrow Street is on the decline. Most of the old neighbours have died and departed, and the Viola Turner, the family matriarch, has gone to stay with in the suburbs with her son Cha-Cha, the eldest of thirteen. And it’s not supposed that she’ll be returning home, although nobody wants to admit it, and in grappling with this idea and the controversial question of just what to do with the family home once their mother goes—the bank has disclosed that it’s worth about four thousand dollars—all the while recovering from an accident that has left him weakened physically as well as psychologically, Cha-Cha is brought close to a breakdown regarding an experience from decades before, a curious encounter with an apparent ghost who tried to kill him. An experience that has haunted him ever since, but in raising the matter with his church-going wife, his dying mother, and his ever-feuding brothers and sisters, Cha-Cha seems to only make things worse. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to all of them, the youngest sister is a gambling addict who’s become homeless, and squatting in the house on Yarrow Street, meanwhile their brother Troy is hatching a plan to shortsell and buy the place out from all of them. And all the time, there’s an undercurrent, the story of their parents at the very beginning, a story none of the children knew, but has which has haunted all of them in ways they only just perceive. How much is legacy? How much is destiny? And how hard is it to disentangle from all of that and build an actual life for one’s self?
The Turner House deserves all its critical acclaim, and then some. Like Google street view, it’s the kind of world that you can lose yourself in, and well forget about the other one. If you’re on the lookout for a Great American Novel, I can’t think you’d do any better than starting right here.
May 23, 2016
I’ve been a huge fan of Elaine McCluskey since her short story collection, Valery The Great. I love her merciless humour, the way she packs a sentence, her singular point of view which casts the ordinary in such an extraordinary light, and I love that her unsparing perspective is thoroughly laced with hope and kindness. All these things are on show in her latest novel, The Most Heartless Town in Canada, which begins with a Diane Arbus-inspired image and eight bald eagle carcasses. The town of Myrtle, Nova Scotia, has never been in the national press until this photo which goes out over the wires, and suddenly the boy and girl depicted find themselves as infamous as their town is. The story of the town involves its poultry plant and the bald eagles who’d started feasting on entrails left by plant workers, gathering a popular following of their own before all being brutally slaughtered. The story of the boy and girl is even more complicated that that, and involves a pitiful swim team with big dreams, their overenthusiastic coach, her dodgy boyfriend, and a get-rich-quick scheme. The girl is the photo is Rita Van Loon, an unremarkable swimmer, middling member of the Myrtle Otters. The boy is Hubert Hansen, who has just moved to Myrtle with his mother after the death of his father, and who wanders to the streets of town with his dog and perhaps sees more than anybody. Together, Hubert and Rita tell the real story behind the headlines and think-pieces, disturbing the reader’s notion of small-town stereotypes and the urban/rural divide. The most wonderful thing about McCluskey (and what makes her so funny) are the people she creates, characters who conform to type enough to be familiar but then surprise you just like real people do. Although the problem with this is that sometimes these people forget they’re in a novel and start doing their own thing, which is to say that The Most Heartless Town in Canada can lack cohesion. But that doesn’t undermine the goodness of this book, the delight I took in it. McCluskey’s writing is so good, her characters so richly drawn, and the payoff so great—in heart and humour both—that you’ll be happy to follow these sentences down any avenue, and all over town.
May 15, 2016
In the notes for Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation, the author writes about the other mothers with whom she found herself “in constant conversation” after she became a mother herself, “and the subject of our conversation was often motherhood itself.” (My experience of these same conversations inspired a book, as I wrote about in my foreword here.) Biss writes, “These mothers helped me understand how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are.” And so it meant something to me that Eula Biss is one of the people acknowledged in A Pillow Book, by Suzanne Buffam (whose first book won the Gerald Lampert Prize and whose second was a finalist for the Griffin Prize), that Biss included Buffum in her own acknowledgements as one of the friends by whose conversations her own writing was fed, to consider that A Pillow Book was born of those conversations from the other side.
Although Buffam’s book is not obviously a companion to On Immunity. At first glance, it has more in common with Jenny Offill’s novel, Dept. of Speculation, a novel in fragments whose form suits the disintegration of the protagonist’s marriage, career and sense of self after she becomes a mother. The novel has been celebrated for its frankness in addressing that kind of disintegration, although my struggle with the book was with its failure to really be a novel. Whereas Buffam’s book is catalogued as poetry, and we’re told within the book itself (as well as on its back cover): “Not a memoir. Not an epic. Not an essay. Not a spell. Not a shopping list. Not a field report. Not a prayer. Not a dream book. Not a novel…” A far more interesting book for its lack of imposition of structural constraint.
While On Immunity is certainly apart from these, a volume of rigorous non-fiction, I think the three books form a fascinating trinity. When I am trying to persuade a reader to pick up Biss’s book (because not everyone is always up for rigorous non-fiction), I tell them that this is the kind of rigorous non-fiction a woman writes when she has a small child. It’s a short book, created of manageable pieces. You could pick up the book and read a section every time you feed your baby, is what I mean. So in a way while it’s decidedly coherent, On Immunity is structurally as fragmented as the others. Furthermore the whole premise is that Biss is trying to make sense of a world that has been exploded to pieces, to reconcile polarities and complexities, to put the pieces back together. Which is what Offill and Buffam are doing as well, and I wonder if together these books suggest a new genre of mother-lit, books that use structure and content to interrogate and complicate the narratives we’re handed about what motherhood is supposed to be and who mothers are and what we’re supposed to preoccupied with. All three books also blend autobiographical elements with fiction (or non-fiction in the case of Biss) in ways that further complicate the narrative and allow the author a necessary expansion of literary possibility.
(Sarah at Edge of Evening wrote this week about Her 37th Year: An Index, by Suzanne Scanlon, and after I read her post, I immediately ordered the book from the publisher. I have a suspicion that this book too might fit [but not comfortably; there are is nothing comfortable about these books] into the genre I’m talking about.)
Buffam’s collection has been born of a certain panic. The first: she’s unable to sleep. In lieu of counting sheep, she’s making lists, strange connections, pursuing fascinations, and becoming preoccupied with sleep hygiene. Plus pillows. “Among the oldest living pillows in the world today is a smooth block of unpainted wood with a wide crack running through its middle and a shallow indentation on the top,” the book begins. The next fragment of text starts, “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote lists. Abraham Lincoln took midnight walks…. I put a piece of paper under my pillow at night, and when I could not sleep, I wrote in the dark, wrote Henry David Thoreau, who once spent a fortnight in a roofless cabin with his head on a pillow of bricks.”
Lists such as, “Books I’d Like to Read Someday,” “Dream Jobs” (the fragment above which is a piece beginning, “Later that fall in West Orange, New Jersey, Thomas Edison staged the first pillow fight ever recorded on film.”), “Unendurable” (“Dinner with donors./ Dreadlocks on a WASP.”), and “Dubious Doctors” (“Dr. Feelgood/ Dr. Doolittle/ Dr. Spock../Dr. Pepper./ Dr. Dre.”), “Moustaches A to Z” (Anwar Sedat and Burt Reynolds to Yosemite Sam and Zorba the Greek).
The fragments are divided by small circles whose shadings progress in the way of the lunar cycle (as in the cover of the book). And amidst all these other curiosities are dispatches (though “not a dispatch” is probably also true) from the field of motherhood, the narrator’s young daughter referred to as “Her Majesty:
“No luck with the potty today I record in my little blue pillow book. No interest, either, in wearing the new Hello Kitty underwear I bought last week at Target, though Her Majesty did kiss each pair as we removed them from the shiny plastic packaging.”
“Was Shonagon bored? Was she lonely?” Buffum’s narrator wonders of the Japanese author of the first Pillow Book, another object of fascination. We see her husband meeting with a student to discuss her paper on Spinoza: “From the hovering basket of a hot-air balloon in our front yard…the lift off into a swirling swarm of downy flakes, leaving me behind with Her Majesty in the kitchen…” Early in the book, moons before, she recalls sharing sushi “with a famous aging editor in New York.” When he learns she has no children (yet), he tells her, “Good…You’ll be finished as a writer if you do.”
As I said, this is a book that is born of panic.
And it’s fascinating, so readable. It got to the point where I had to put my bookmark onto the following page without turning it over because if I hadn’t, I would have read the page, devouring the whole book in a sitting, when it felt so good just to eke it out, a few pages before bedtime. A book truly to savour. Because the contents are so strange and interesting, ever surprising, and the language is beautiful. I kept reading parts out loud to my husband, and it was then that the poetry of the prose, Buffam’s attention to language was most clear, with subtle rhymes, alliteration. A sense of rhythm. A sense of humour most of all.
April 20, 2016
Ever since 1964, writers whose protagonists are eleven-year-old girls called Harriet have been taking a serious chance on things. How can one actually pull that off that kind of literary homage? But Cordelia Strube, whose many books include the 2010 Giller-nominated novel Lemon (which was one of my favourite books that year) has absolutely pulled it off. Her Harriet, in On the Shores of Darkness There is Light, is a many-splendored, singular creation, and the novel goes and goes and never falters.
Harriet lives in an apartment building called the Shangrila, once a luxury high-rise but now a place housing mostly downtrodden seniors and her family since they lost their home in the 2008 economic downturn. Her mother is trying to keep them afloat through under-the-table bookkeeping, with no help from Gennady, her broke criminal lawyer boyfriend in Crocs, or Harriet’s father Trent, avid cyclist who lives with Uma who he met at the farmer’s market and who is currently in the middle of an IVF cycle. And then there is Irwin, Harriet’s five-year-old brother who has hydrocephalous and whose traumatic entrance to the world brought forth the end of Harriet’s parents’ marriage and all semblances of stability in her life. His health remains perilous, with frequent seizures and hospital visits, ever a source of anxiety and preoccupation for their mother, leaving Harriet with a preponderance of freedom that she exploits for her own devices.
Dumpster-diving for materials for her found art projects, charging her elderly neighbours for runs to the convenience store, and hanging out with her teenage neighbour, Darcy, and losing her scattered grandmother at the Scarborough Town Centre, Harriet has her own agenda, which ultimately involves her dream of escaping it all and getting away to a rural retreat far away in Algonquin Park, living alone by a lake and painting much like Tom Thomson did. A playwright, Strube has an ear for dialogue, and the novel is enlivened by conversation by the people all around Harriet, from confused senior citizens to forthright angry teens, and we see all the information contained within these throwaway lines being filtered through Harriet’s precocious but still eleven-year-old brain and how they come to inform her view of the world. The connections she makes between her father’s obsession with cycling and her stepmother’s IVF cycle, for example, or how a diatribe from the malicious Gennady becomes the title of a sculpture she creates called “The Leopard Who Changed Her Spots.” In a subtle fashion, this is very much a novel that is preoccupied with language, by words, and the puzzles of what things really mean.
As in her previous work, Strube is unafraid to portray adults as a ragtag collection of lost souls and idiots. (This is another feature this novel shares with the collected works of Louise Fitzhugh.) That such folks are responsible for the care of vulnerable people is always a terrifying thing for those people to discover, and On the Shores of Darkness… is about that loss of innocence, the realization that none of us are really ever safe, and that our parents are as vulnerable as we are. “I want you to get better, but I don’t want to be blamed,” admits Harriet’s mother at one point regarding her son’s unhappiness, which is indicative of every adult’s failure in this book to take responsibility for his or her own actions, for their own life. “All of this has been very hard on me,” so say the grown-ups in relation to their children’s hardships, over and over again.
At nearly 400 pages, the novel is long, but swiftly paced and never dull. The bleakness of its considerations are broken up with incredible humour, from the cacophony of the voices in its background to the sheer audacity of Harriet herself, her nerve, all the things she is willing to do and say. There is a humour too in the contrast between the child’s point of view and the world around her, and—in the case of Harriet’s friend, Darcy, in particular—the person she is trying to to be. The sheer naïveté of these would-be old souls. Darcy likes to go on about, “that Caitlin whore,” a friend from her old neighbourhood, and we learn about what Caitlin did to her at Guides: “I was a Sprite and she was a Pixie. That ho bag made like all the cool girls were Pixies….Then the skank fucked up my puppetry badge.”
There is a twist two thirds of the way into the novel that is absolutely devastating and potentially crazy-making, but Strube manages to make the final section work with the introduction of a new character, a young girl who underlines the novel’s Fitzhugh ties by her determination to be a detective, carrying a magnifying glass and clues jotted in a notebook even. And while the novel veers dangerously toward sentimentality as it heads to its conclusion, Strube shows just enough restraint, and manages an impeccable ending, one that brings its pieces together, steady as the beat of a heart.