October 28, 2014
I love Elaine McCluskey’s short stories, and have been looking forward to her third collection, Hello, Sweetheart, which follows The Watermelon Social and Valery the Great. To begin to read one of McCluskey’s stories is to immediately be struck by the force of her voice, a voice rich with humour, perspective and compassion. Hers is a voice so compelling that it conjures a world, and the reader becomes immersed in that world, entirely on the level with McCluskey’s hapless characters.
They’re hapless, and they’re losers, but she loves them. Their stories are also terrifically funny, even when they’re sad. They’re pure of heart, always. The stories in Hello, Sweetheart take place in Halifax amidst circles that are loosely linked. We begin at the Toy Eros sex shop, where our protagonist has finally landed a job (though she tells her mother she’s working at a bookstore: “Do they know you have three years’ university?” she asks./ “Oh yes,” I lie. “They are very impressed.”) She’s overcome a tragedy that’s not made quite clear, except that it’s resulted in a special kind of clarity: “[W]e all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests,” and it’s with this awareness that she regards the curious world she now inhabits.
We all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests. For most of McCluskey’s characters, the bomb’s gone off, but this does not mean relinquishing all dignity. I don’t think I’ll be able to explain the point of “Giddy Up,” the man who’s convinced that he used to be a pony, who responds to most inquiries with, “If it doesn’t bother me, then why should it bother you?,” and who manages to draw his own line in the sand and is probably more powerful and free than anyone else in the book is. There’s the man who changes his dog-walking route in order to avoid “the kind of woman who wore rubber boots whether she needed them or not.” An adult woman enrolled in undergraduate courses trying to get over being duped by a guy called Dwayne. A terrifying story that begins with an early morning wake-up and ends with a kidnapping, it all happening so fast that you’ll thumb back through the pages wondering, “How did she take me there?”
“Chez Helene” is a wonderful story in which, like so many of these, the real story is in the subtext, the space between the lines, which is that “people can believe anything they want to. And that’s ok.” (The idea that underlines so many of these stories—this is the definition of compassion.) “Jaw Breakers” is a very McCluskeyian story of a former swim champ whose career trajectory went wrong, and then he begins to lose his father in a curious way, and there goes the ground beneath his feet. Similarly sad is the life of the man falsely accused of sexually abusing children who is then left to make his own way with his shattered reputation—though McCluskey offers him the slightest reprieve from his sorrow.
“Rating Dr. Chestnut” is the story I’ve been waiting for all my life, that which is told through the structure of comments on a RateMyMD.com site. Which is not the only story in the book to engage with life online, other stories with Facebook and text messaging as embedded in the fiction as it is in real life, one even comprising two of those “Ten Things About Me” lists that were uber-memed a few years back. And Margaret, whose whole story takes place in her head as she’s playing a drinking game (alone) while watching Say Yes to the Dress. These are stories that engage so readily with the stuff of the world.
And then the final story, “Hello, Sweetheart,” a story that explains a lot, about grief and mourning, most of the text seemingly delivered from McCluskey to her father shortly after his death. He’s the subject of her second-person narration, and she tells him a story from his funeral. “It was funny, Dad, and you would have laughed. It would have been one of those stories we could have told. Over and over again.”
I finished that last story, shut the book, and clutched it close, and said, “Yes.” The whole project making sense, those stories, the sadness. Some of these stories are a bit rough around the edges, though in McCluskey’s work, form is always secondary to language. There is an exuberance to her work, an energy, that is so compelling to encounter, and there’s nothing else like it, really. She’s one of the best short story writers at work in Canada—which is saying something indeed.
October 19, 2014
Since we’re talking soup—or at least we will be—I’d like to offer the literary ingredients that I’d put to use were I cooking up a novel like Susan Fish’s Ithaca (which I loved). First, half a stack of Barbara Pym novels, since Pym is the original chronicler of the unknown fascinating inner-lives of lonely middle-aged women, particularly those who type indices for academic men. Next, toss in a novel or two by Wallace Stegner, or at least All the Little Live Things and Crossing to Safety, for their depictions of the intimacies of long marriages, late-in-life-garnered insight, and—in the case of the latter book—a cozy look at academic communities. Then season with Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps her most recent, Flight Behaviour, for its illumination of the subtle effects of environmental devastation, and as a portrait of how an activist can be borne of an ordinary woman. Let it simmer. Indeed.
Ithaca is the story of Daisy Turner, whose husband has recently died, leaving her unmoored in a world in which she’d always felt so solidly ensconced. Unquestioningly so. Her husband had been everything to her, their grown son far away living his own life in Singapore, and now with him gone, the sole event on Daisy’s calendar (apart from the trip they’d booked months in advance to celebrate their 40th anniversary—what to do about that now?) is the Wednesday suppers, a longstanding tradition in which her husband’s academic colleagues and students and their families would gather together for friendship and conversation and Daisy’s famous soups. The suppers are all she’s got left now, and she constructs her weeks around them, too ashamed to let anybody know the extent of her grief and loneliness, that Arthur’s death has left her without any solid ground to stand on.
But there is something to be said for unsteadiness, because too much steadiness is to have the world be sure, which it’s not, and something also to be said for how the process of reconstructing a broken life can bring forth growth and change and a new kind of resolve. As with those proverbial butterflies flapping their wings, it all starts with a small thing, Daisy invited by a friend to help harvest honey. The hives bought for his wife years ago, ailing from MS, with the hopes that their royal jelly might succeed where her medicine hasn’t, but it doesn’t and her health has only worsened. She can’t even venture out of her house these days, and so Daisy goes with Henry, instead of his wife, and on the way, she notices the signs protesting “fracking” in their area.
Fracking. She doesn’t know the word, but she understands enough about its context—39 years of marriage to a geologist is some kind of education. Oil companies are planning to drill deep into the shale that surround their community for oil deposits—a proposition that promises to save farms from foreclosure and wreak environmental devastation, depending on who you ask. And then at the next Wednesday Supper, Daisy hears the term again, learns a young professor is teaching a night course on the topic. Uncharacteristically, Daisy decides to enrol, surprising herself, and everybody who knows her. Through involvement in her course, her community widens, the Wednesday night suppers becoming more interesting as her “frackivist” pal starts attending, broadening Daisy’s horizons. And Daisy starts asking more questions, about what changes are necessary in her life, about what she needs to hold onto and let go from the past, and of what possibilities are still before her? Never mind the complicating force of her attraction to Henry, her friend with the bee-hives (and the wife!), he for whom she leaned in close to hear something and he kissed her on her ear. He did. And she keeps encountering women at church who seem concerned she’ll steal their husbands—what if, unbeknownst to her, they’re onto something after all?
Fish’s Daisy put me in mind of another Daisy, Carol Shields’ Daisy Stone Goodwill from The Stone Diaries, another small life with large ramifications and great surprises, a women who reinvents herself over and over again. Another novel steeped in stone and geology as well, rooted in the layers upon layers beneath its characters’ feet. With humour, insight and grace, Fish writes similarly of the “small ceremonies” of ordinary life, of human intimacy and kindness and complications.
Her Ithaca is timely and profound, rich with surprises and delight.
October 5, 2014
I’ve been frustrated lately by hearing authors complain that their books about motherhood aren’t being treated as “literary,” as though any story with a tricycle and a diaper pail is by definition silly and shallow, for lactating readers only. Though I sympathize—the few times I’ve seen my book catalogued with “Essays” instead of “Parenting”, I’ve been overjoyed at the inclusion in the wider realm. It’s certainly true that stories about motherhood are ghettoized, but then almost every time I’ve read the books in question by the complaining authors, I’ve wanted to reply that the reason their books aren’t regarded as “literary” is because they’re not literary. Because these authors have gotten confused about novels, and written a catalogue for a hipster baby boutique instead whose characters are stereotypes and mannikins. (There is also a trend toward making postpartum depression the thing that explains everything else, when in fact, in a book, it should be just the beginning…)
So perhaps the real conversation should be about how it’s difficult to write literature about motherhood. Which is true. Part of it is because the early days of motherhood are a journey away from language—the words don’t work here, they don’t even apply. Rachel Cusk writes about reliving her own evolution towards language as her baby grows, “like someone visiting old haunts after an absence.” And even then, the words come together to mean something different than before, something perhaps intangible to a reader who has never lived it.
The fragmentation of a novel like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, say, is not surprising. A novel whose form and language are shaped by the character’s experience is motherhood, just as much as her life is, the plot is—here is a book demonstrating that not all stories of motherhood are relegated to the literary dustbin. That literary motherhood is possible after all.
And here is another, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset. If her previous novel, The Way the Crow Flies, was about post-war family, coming of age in technicolour, their parents’ valiant efforts (and failure) to to be ones who got it right—shiny cars, green lawns, and lacquered hair—then here is the story of the trauma of the aftermath. Though ostensibly, this is also a novel about a week in the life of a mother, Mary Rose MacKinnon, a writer who has taken early retirement to be home with her kids, usually alone, while her partner directs plays in a city across the country. It’s a life I recognize, very much, partly because I walk the same streets Mary-Rose walks, my kids play in the same parks, and I walk by the blue door of her kids’ Montessori School every day en-route to get my own daughter to and from kindergarten. And partly also because I know the trial of trying to wrench an unwilling two-year-old into a pair of boots, or what it is to race across town before the nap window shuts and the whole day is shot. Though even if you don’t know, MacDonald will show you.
Of course, the blue door of the Montessori School is is not exactly the same one I walk past, because the one in the book is fictional. Which sounds like an annoying author trick, but then MacDonald goes and does something so interesting with all the connections between fiction and reality, between her novel and her life. Mary-Rose MacKinnon is author of two books in a (hypothetical) trilogy about a girl who discovers a long-lost brother in a parallel universe. In Adult Onset, we are privy to sections of these novels (which are quite compelling—not something you can say about all books within books) and eventually it becomes clear that MacDonald’s own novel, with all its vivid realism, is operating with a vaguely sci-fi subtext, that indeed this novel takes place in a parallel universe (which is slightly askew—though what universe isn’t?). Geographical details are altered slightly to suggest that this is time out of time. The Balloon King on Bathurst becomes a Starbucks in the course of a day or so. But then isn’t that what happens in a city? Not just that everything turns into a Starbucks, but that the street-scape is ever-changing, a time lapse photograph in real time. Everything is neither here nor there.
Can you tell yet how much I am fascinated and in love with this novel? I started out unsure though, not convinced by MacDonald’s command of her structure. Each chapter a day in the life of Mary-Rose, parenting solo as per usual, going through the motions and tedium of her days, but something is stirring beneath the surface. An ache in her bones, the bones in her arm, which were operated on twice in her childhood. The novel flashes back to her childhood, to her mother’s miscarriages and stillbirths between Mary-Rose and her older sister, and the dead babies after. Before Mary Rose, there had been another Mary Rose, who’d been stillborn and not baptized, and so Mary-Rose inherited her name. These stories are their family lore, the details hard to keep straight anyway, never mind her mother’s deepening dementia. And Mary-Rose is feeling similarly troubled neurologically—there are gaps her days and in her memory, just like the holes in her bones that ailed her in childhood. It is disorienting how the narrative dips in and out of time, into Mary Rose’s childhood and her more recent past. Everything is connected to everything else, and to scratch at the surface is to dare to disturb the precarious arrangement of mental stability, of family harmony.
There are other traumas. Mary-Rose is troubled by the mellowing of her parents in old age, the disappearance of her mother’s rage, her parents’ ease and happiness with their grandchildren, considering how fraught was her own childhood, and also her parents’ reaction to her coming out as a lesbian years before. The cruelty with which they’d treated their daughter, wishing she’d had cancer instead, refusing to acknowledge her relationship, to visit her home. Not banishing her altogether, which might have been simpler, but treating her personal life with a certain coldness, taking years to come around to it. And then finally, there they are in love with the biological child of their daughter’s wife—here we are in the 21st century. It gets better. But how does one heal from that, Mary Rose is asking in Adult Onset (which MacDonald herself asked in a Globe and Mail article last summer during Pride Week in Toronto)? Can we ever forgive our parents for the ways they failed us? And are we destined to repeat their mistakes with our own children, personality as much a part of our genetic legacy as everything? Can we forgive our parents and love our parents, but still seek out lives that are different from theirs? Is it possible to choose our own destinies? Are there lessons for us in parallel worlds after all?
In its details, Adult Onset is certainly a novel about the minutiae of motherhood, the kind of thing Shirley Hughes chronicles in her picture books. Maternal ambivalence isn’t named, as it really shouldn’t be in literature, or the world for that matter, because what in life do we ever not feel two ways about? Instead, the life of a person with children is explored, her complex feelings toward her children a bit interrogated, a bit taken for granted, all of this connected to deeper things, because just as no mother is an island, neither is her maternity in relation to the rest of life. A mother is never just this one thing, even at the worst times when she imagines she is.
In a really wonderful conversation, Jenny Offill says, “If you look at literature on motherhood, there’s still some very interesting space to be filled. In Grace Paley’s stories she’s a mother, an activist, and a wife, with this amazing and relentless observing eye. She writes how it feels to be in the middle of all this. That’s what we need more of.”
In this, and in so much more, Ann-Marie MacDonald has delivered.
September 25, 2014
Caitlin Moran was such a revelation when I first encountered her two and half years ago (precisely here, if you’re wondering), and I adored How to Be a Woman, have reread it since, as well as her anthology of columns, Moranthology, and I even tracked down a copy of The Chronicles of Narmo, the novel she published when she was 14, just because I wanted to read everything she’d ever written. So I wasn’t actually sure I needed to read her new book, the novel, How to Build a Girl, which takes on a similar trajectory to her memoir and long-ago first novel (which doesn’t count, asserts the bio in her new book, which purports to be her “debut” novel). It’s the shape of her own life story—working class girl becomes a rock journalist at tender age, catapulted into awesomeness from an upbringing spent eating blocks of cheese and being a social outcast. So by this, the third time, I sort of thought Moran might have that area covered. I approached the novel warily—but I loved it. To read anything Caitlin Moran writes is to laugh a lot and get everybody in your presence wondering just what is so hilarious. Oh, it’s ribald, brutal, gorgeous and profound. Um, packed with references to Annie. And I guess I’ve read enough Caitlin Moran to know that How to Build a Girl actually departs from her autobiography in a lot of ways, and I didn’t conflate her heroine with the author. I adored her straightforward depictions of a young woman’s sexuality (she calls herself a “sex pirate”, a “swashfuckler”), the pitch perfect pop culture references, the Caitlin Moran-ish tirades that popped up throughout the narrative, which were familiar—on living in poverty, the power of music, and the power of books to build you a whole other other world. And oh, the parts where young Johanna is so desperately trying to be “legendary”, drunk out of her tree, talking about all the sex she’s ever had because she’s going to be the person who’s had all the sex and who’s to know if she doesn’t talk about it? Saints preserve us all.
My feelings about Caitlin Moran’s work are always connected to myself, the ways in which I’m so inspired by her ideas and her point of view. They’re also tangentially connected to the vitriol she inspires in her critics (for reasons worth considering and otherwise). The personality looms large, but obscures an essential and pivotal point: Caitlin Moran is an amazing writer. Presenting her own story like an every woman’s tale, you too can make it from a Wolverhampton Council House to the Times of London and columnist of the year. Except you can’t. She is so incredibly smart and her work is so rich and funny. The novel is structurally messy in places (tenses are confused, perspective moving in an out of time), but the prose is taut, even the tangents perfectly primed. Her Johanna Morrigan is such a vivid voice, bringing the whole world around her to life. And for once, I disagree with Laura Miller (shocking, I know) that How to Build a Girl “is just not fiction”, has “diluted charms.” Because they overwhelmed me, those charms. I was totally sold. This book bowled me over with greatness.
August 18, 2014
Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces is the novel we’ve all been waiting for. Me, because I’ve been reading pieces of Ellen in Pieces in journals and magazines for the last few years, and hearing rumours they’d culminate in an actual book, and how often are one’s longings so perfectly satisfied? And you’ve been waiting for this book, because I promise that it’s one of the best you’ll read this year. Devastating, wonderful and brilliant. Because aren’t you always looking for a book to apply such adjectives to? Because I’ve been longing to read this book for years, and when I did, it was even better than I’d hoped.
It’s a novel in stories, or a collection of linked stories, or maybe a novel comprised of fragments, which is more like a life is than most novels I’ve ever read. The first three “chapters,” I’d read previously, and through which I’d become entranced with Adderson’s character, Ellen McGinty, divorced, determined, blundering, flawed, impulsive, hated, and loved. Because it’s rare to encounter such a character in fiction, a woman in the middle years of her life, a woman who is not a type, who has history, is unsure of what to do with her present, who has a body, experiences lust, gets tired, loves her children, cannot stand her children, has friends, fights with her friends, who is herself with such remarkable specificity—”Ellenish” is a term applied at one point in the book, and I knew exactly what they meant. It is rare that a character is so vividly realized—so familiar and yet utterly original at once.
Caroline Adderson pays attention to words, which are as specific as her characters. No one else would write a sentence like, “A melting weakness overtook her and she remembered all those years ago, not here but in Ellen’s North Vancouver kitchen, how he glissaded out of the way so Georgia could set down her platter of blintzes.” A platter of blintzes—has there ever been such a thing? The world reinvented through Adderson’s extraordinary, euphonic vocabulary.
In the first chapter, “I Feel Lousy”, Ellen discover that her younger daughter, not even the disappointing one, is pregnant, which evokes memories of her own troubled past, an accidental pregnancy with her ex-husband, the terrible, awful burden of motherhood, single motherhood in particular, and the lengths that a mother will go to—this mother in particular—for her daughter’s sake. “Poppycock” finds us a few years into the future, Ellen’s estranged father on her doorstep, obviously suffering from some kind of malady and she’s horrified to find him but also bowled over because he wants her, he needs her. She’d assumed her family had written her off altogether since she’d tried to sleep with her brother-in-law at her father’s 50th birthday years before. But the past, just like the present, turns out to be more complicated than that, and the reappearance of her father is a gift that comes with a shadow, a particularly long one.
And if you think that ending is devastating, read “Ellen-Celine, Celine-Ellen” next, about Ellen and her two friends whose relationship was forged at pre-natal class years ago, Ellen all alone because her asshole husband Larry had just abandoned her (the first time). The three stay close in the decades to follow, Ellen and Celine taking a trip to Europe together, which is ill-advised, so say their other friend, Georgia, and also Ellen’s hairdresser, Tony, because Ellen and Celine spend much of their friendship not being able to stand each other, a situated not mitigated by their strong personalities, and also that of the three friends who’d met in pre-natal class, it had been Celine’s baby that died.
Have I conveyed that these stories of death and crisis, all the drama of a life, are also funny? Adderson portrays human behaviour at the intersection of heroism and buffoonery, or else just irritability, to much effect. There’s a subtlety at work here. There are lines that are going to come along and break your heart.
The next few stories are more concerned with the present, pieces fitting more closely together. Ellen begins to find herself—her daughters are settling down, or else calming down; she sells her house; she takes up pottery again; after years of searching, she is learning to be present. She also starts sleeping with a young man who is her daughters’ age, which doesn’t hurt. She thinks she’s beginning to get over her ex-husband, Larry, whose desertion has wrung her heart for years and years.
One chapter is from the point of view of Matt, Ellen’s young lover, who is using Ellen to escape from his own troubled domestic situation. Another by Ellen’s older daughter, Mimi, who has overcome her problems with addiction but is still searching for something to hold onto, and still running from her mother too, whose presence is still vividly felt even from halfway across the country in Toronto, currently in the midst of a garbage strike. (Mimi traces back most of her problems to having once discovered her mother in bed with her grade-five teacher, whom she’d been in love with. Until that point.) Another word in this chapter, “orrery”, which recurs at the end of the story as Mimi rolls down a car window using a similar device. “She saw the moon, the faint stars vying for attention against the glare of human habitation. Pluto was up there somewhere, that small cold outcast planet far away. But there were people who still believed in it, people who wished it well.”
If the story doesn’t devastate you, I promise that the prose will.
At the end of this chapter, Mimi finally gets an inkling of why her mother is who she is, with the aid of a handy Bryan Adams lyric. Maternal ambivalence is a two-way street, and Adderson’s is a gut-wrenching depiction of its flip side. And then in the next chapter, “Mother-eye—the curse cast on every birthing woman, the hex of self-sacrificing empathy. I will see your pain, but you will never see mine.”
It’s at the end of this chapter when Ellen is diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m going to tell you this, tell you this straight: Ellen dies.
I am telling you this because it’s revealed anyway in a tiny sentence on the back of the book (“…we watch Ellen negotiate the last year of her tumultuous life as the pieces of who she is finally come together.”), and in the epigraph as well, and I am telling you this because if you aren’t prepared, it might just be too terrible to take. When was the last time an author dared to kill off the central character in her novel and not even at the end of her novel…
…and of course, Virginia Woolf did, in To the Lighthouse, which I read last month, and which I see as having all kinds of parallels with Adderson’s book, although the two vary greatly in style (and Adderson’s prose is devourable, while Woolf’s must be savoured in measured portions). The notion of “time passes” and that we see a character through the eyes of those around her, the mixture of love and dislike and what lies between which makes up most relationships, and she isn’t even knowable to herself, because who has ever been so pinned down? That she a person whom people assemble around, in all her flaws and fallibility. If she is a solar system, here is the sun, and what happens after the light goes out?
The death scene is sublime, written from the perspective of Ellen’s young grandson, who has his own problems, and when I came to the paragraph break, I put down the book and sobbed and sobbed, and had to go find someone to comfort me—it’s rare that text on a page is ever this affecting. I was devastated, but also amazed at the beauty of the scene, of Adderson’s writing—it was perfect. Masterful.
In the final stories of the book, Ellen’s friends and family gather around her, offering richer perspectives on the scenes we’ve already read. I was especially besotted with “The Something Amendment,” from the perspective of Georgia, who is the third in Ellen’s friendship with Celine. We’ve previously known Georgia through her telephone conversations with Ellen, her jolly husband Gary chiming in from the background. As ever, however, the reality of life is more complicated than can be discerned from down a telephone wire, and Georgia’s own relationship with Ellen is different from even what Ellen suspects, and one of the great achievements of Adderson’s book, I think, is her rich portrayal of decades-long female friendships, the betrayals and compromises that are implicit in such relationships.
If I have to go out of my way to find a criticism of the book, it would be that the Ellen herself is so compelling that the chapters in which she’s at a distance are not as much—the half-grownness of Ellen’s lover is so bland compared to the presence of Ellen in her prime, although the characterization of him at home with his family is vivid, rich and surprising. Or maybe it’s just that I think that Ellen could have done better?
I don’t hate that she died. I wish she hadn’t, but I also didn’t feel like Adderson was using cancer or death as a plot device, to manipulate her characters or (worse!) to manipulate her reader. If its confrontation with cancer and mortality, Ellen in Pieces is a companion to Oh, My Darling by Shaena Lambert, which I read last year (and Lambert is thanked in Adderson’s acknowledgements; they share a publisher). It’s a brave take on things, really, but typical, because the exquisite nature of the entire book comes from Adderson defying her readers’ expectations, surprising you with every line, with every turn of the page.
August 7, 2014
If not for the internet, I never would have heard of Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken. But the wonderful Sara O’Leary had wonderful things to say about it on Twitter, and then it was this post from the Parnassus Books blog that clinched it, the line, “I would rather be funny than just about anything.” So I ordered a copy, and was disappointed to have to put it aside before we departed on vacation last week, because its first line was, “Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.”
Not that the book is funny, exactly, or that McCracken isn’t funny, because she is, but the book is more heartbreaking than anything, or maybe I mean heartwringing—it’s amazing and magnificent. Passages like, “The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They’re listed in the phone book, They get mail. Their wigs rest of styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.” Passages you want to underline, and annotate with, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” The most remarkable combination of specific details and universality. The whole book is like this. I loved it. (It also reminded me of the best parts of Lee Kvern’s remarkable collection, which I enjoyed earlier this year.)
The stories are unfathomable, approached from the oddest angles, but their pieces fall together in a perfect kind of sense. In “Something Amazing”, two troubled families come together in a remarkable collision that changes both of them forever. In “Property”, a widower moves into a rental house and is overwhelmed by the detritus of the house’s owner; in “Juliet”, a murder sends shock waves across a small town, in particular amongst the staff at the public library; in “The House of the Three Legged Dogs”, a British ex-pat hits rock-bottom, his house sold out from under him by his alcoholic son; in “Hungry”, a young girl stays with her grandmother while her father is critically ill in the hospital, and the grandmother must protect the girl and process her own complicated grief.
In “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”, the discovery of a young boy shoplifting in a discount supermarket is interpreted differently by the boy himself and the supermarket manager who imagines himself the boy’s saviour. In the title story, a family tries to get away from their teenager daughter’s problems by relocating to Paris for a summer, only to discover that her problems travel with them, to devastating effect. And the last lines of the book? The man who “…felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.” And I’ve read those lines over and over, marvelling at their imagery, pondering their puzzle, their resonance, in particular in light of incidents within the story itself. Throughout the collection, these passages that strike you, suggesting deeper rumblings—the book’s title is so perfect.
Of course, I’ve outlined the plots of the collection’s various stories, but they aren’t really what the stories are about. Many of them are about grief, about the peculiarity of details during the times in life in which we’re grief-struck, or stricken at all. They’re about human connection in surprising places, about misunderstandings in which the connection is missed. Their about the things that get lost and what we choose to preserve. They’re funny even with the sadness, a many sided shape. And they’re absolutely extraordinary.
August 3, 2014
My review of K.D. Miller’s wonderful story collection, All Saints, was in the Globe and Mail yesterday. I enjoyed the book so much when I read it in July, and appreciated its vital links to Lynn Coady’s Giller-winning collection, Hellgoing, as well as its Barbara Pymmishness, and the ways in which outright Pymmishness is subverted.
“…All Saints reads like a collision between Pym and Lynn Coady’s recent Hellgoing, whose epigraph is from Larkin’s “Church Going,” a poem which asks the question, “When churches will fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into.”
The easy answer is condos – their developers are the only ones still banging on All Saints’s door. As with those in Coady’s collection, Miller’s characters are negotiating existence in a world in which the old rules and morality Pym satirized no longer apply.”
June 23, 2014
“I had an abortion.” This is not a confession, but instead is the phrase with which my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies” (which was published in The M Word and online this spring) has been received by readers, more than any other, or at least it seems as such from my point of view. And these readers are not confessing either, but rather are stating a fact of their lives, a fact they seem eager to share. Like me, I suppose they’ve spent a long time feeling as though abortion stories were not to be shared, and they were grateful finally to have an excuse to talk about this fact of their lives, a fact which has been perhaps sad, complicated, maybe neither, but undeniably important.
It’s not shame that keeps women from talking about their abortions, but rather fear of seeming impolite. It’s funny that in a society in which 1/3 of adult women have had abortions and most people understand the procedure to be a necessary part of women’s health, that we kowtow to the sensibility of a minority whose vocal stance allows them to set the tone on the issue. That abortion is unseemly, dead babies, something that marks us, something which we have to hide at all costs.
All costs? The huge cost of hiding our abortion stories, of course, is that the vocal minority gets to tell us everything we know about abortions, much of which is wrong. (Increased breast cancer risks, post traumatic symptoms and regret, photos of aforementioned dead babies.) They get to influence the people who make the legislation, because the rest of us are too polite to speak up. They get to tell us everything we know about the women who have abortions too, which is that there is a type of woman this happens to and that her experiences are uniform.
With the new book, One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, edited by Kathryn Palmateer and Martha Solomon, with a foreword by Judy Rebick, we learn that everything they told us about abortions, and the women who have them, is wrong. In striking portraits—photographs accompanied by short first-person essays—we learn that women who have had abortions are women of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We learn than many of them are mothers. Others never wanted to be mothers, and it’s that certainty that made the decision to have an abortion quite an easy one to make. Some women look back on their abortions with mixed emotions, or sadness, grief or relief. And most of them look back and are grateful that the choice was theirs to make.
As I wrote in my essay in The M Word, reproductive freedom remains a revolutionary thing for a woman to get away with. Not because we don’t get away with it, but because when we do, we don’t talk about it. Which leaves a woman contemplating abortion or who’s had an abortion feeling that she’s so alone, that no one has ever been where she’s going and come out fine on the other side. And so that’s why a book like One Kind Word is so hugely important, representative of the real experiences of so many women. Experience as depicted by those who’ve lived it rather than those for whom abortion is an abstract moral issue—this is so significant. The book is also important because it creates a space where women who’ve had abortions can see themselves reflected, and the book provides an occasion for women to speak up and say, “This is my story too.”
One Kind Word was an online portrait gallery before it was a book, the project gaining huge momentum and inspiring so many women to be a part of it. (It also has a precedent with Jennifer Baumgardner’s Abortion and Life.) Many participants note that they felt as though they had an obligation to speak up in order to counter the abortion rhetoric which has been hijacked by patriarchal interests, to speak up for those countless other women who did not yet have the courage to represent.
This was not a book that told me anything I didn’t know already, instead confirming the fact that I exist. Which is not meant to be an honourable purpose for a book, literarily speaking, though anyone who’s ever told you this has probably been a man who sees his existence confirmed in his reflection in most everything he ever encounters.
The book’s editors write of their intention to have a copy of One Kind Word in every clinic waiting room across the country, and while this is a very good idea, I’d like to have it gracing coffee tables too. First, because it’s a book of beautiful images, good for flipping through, but also because it places our abortion stories right where they belong—firmly ensconced in the domestic ordinary of our various and remarkable lives.
June 8, 2014
When Plum Johnson’s mother died, as eldest daughter, she was charged with the task of packing up the contents of the family home. This would be no easy task for anyone, but particularly not for Johnson whose parents’ lakefront house on Oakville Ontario was both enormous and stuffed with the materials of decades and decades of family life (including ancient receipts, her father’s impeccable financial records, antique cans of soup, books and more books, and a wasp’s nest). Johnson left her own home in Toronto and moved into her parents’ house, figuring the task before her would take six weeks or so, but she ended up staying for over a year, an experience she recounts in her memoir, They Left Us Everything.
In some ways, Johnson’s is the kind of story that many readers will relate to–a tale of years of demanding elder care, about the peculiar grief of losing one’s parents and the complicated and surprising emotions which accompany this, about coming to terms with who our parents were and the people we wished them to be. But in others, her family’s story is more, well, storied (so much so that her mother has an entire shelf in their home related to books published by or about members of their family). Her family’s interesting background remains peripheral in this memoir, but informs the fascinating lives of the characters who populate it. We learn about her mother’s privileged upbringing in the American South, her father’s war exploits, the early years of her parents’ marriage in Asia, and their eventual settlement in Canada (which was a compromise between their respective heritages). Not everyone has a huge house on the shores of Lake Ontario to come home to for years and years, and there is a hint of exotic to Johnson’s family’s everyday life that makes for a compelling read. Also compelling is the terrific bond between Johnson and her siblings.
Johnson does a specular job of weaving the personal with the universal here, of making her parents so present in a story about their loss, of untangling the difficult legacy of inheritance—all this stuff, but then it’s everything that’s left of her parents in the world. And so Johnson delves into it all and discovers that she never really knew her parents after all. Her approach is similar to two other books that I enjoyed so much–Baking as Biography by Diane Tye and Outside the Box by Maria Meindl, in which women’s lives are discovered through unlikely archives.
In the end, They Left Us Everything is a literary mishmash just as much as the cupboards in Johnson’s parents house were repositories for every kind of thing. It’s a tale of grief, but also a record of fantastic stories, memorable characters, of family life in the mid-20th century, a scrapbook of fascinating objects, a portrait of family ties, and what it means to be a daughter and a mother. It’s an artfully crafted memoir, and a really wonderful read.
June 2, 2014
For about two-thirds of An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, I wasn’t sure what to think. The book begins with the most majestically-crafted sentence (“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”) but then that huge and generous perspective disappears and we’re left with a narrative that moves narrowly between the Before-and-After lives of Mireille Duval Jameson.
Before, ensconced in a fairy tale, confident of her wit and wiles, American born and raised but returned to Haiti, the land of her parents’ birth, her family’s opulent lifestyle conspicuous against the nation’s wider poverty, but this was the only life she knew. And then After, ripped away from her husband and child to be held captive for 14 days and subjected to rape and sadistic violence. From a bubble to a prison then, and while the novel was compelling, there was a flatness to the narrative, its dialogue, and I wanted more in exchange for the violence to which this book’s reader must bear witness—though I will note that the violence is described sparingly, more gestured toward than elaborated upon. Disturbing, yes, but not gratuitous. But still.
And then Mireille is freed (which is not a spoiler) and suddenly, the whole project comes together in the most mesmerizing way and the book became difficult to stop reading. In An Untamed State, the plot is not the point, but rather the point is psychology. First, the psychology of one who is suffering from post-traumatic stress and trauma, as well as the brutal revelation that there is so such thing as safety in the world, not truly. She leaves captivity disconnected from herself—she had to make herself into nothing in order to survive what was inflicted upon her, so how can she get back to the woman was, a wife and mother? Gay’s narrative enacts the processes that Karyn L. Freedman (necessarily, this being non-fiction) more cooly explains in her stunning memoir, One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery. Both books show that trauma is not something one can move on from, but rather that it must be managed and treated on an ongoing basis, like a chronic condition. Which is both heartbreaking, that one never gets over this, but also hopeful—that there is a process at all, and life in the aftermath.
What is most compelling about An Untamed State are the family dynamics that run like fault lines through the entire text. When Mireille is kidnapped, her father refuses to negotiate with them, sacrificing his daughter with his unwillingness to abandon his principles. When she is freed, Mireille has to account for her father’s role in what happened to her, and Gay does a terrific job in making her father a fully-developed, complicated character whose actions are (almost?) understandable, instead of the far more convenient tyrant he could have been. Similarly, her mother’s compliance with her father’s point of view is troubling for her, and even the dynamic she has created with her own husband—she’s hardheaded and hotheaded, prone to running away in hopes of being found, and this time when her husband is unable to find her, the balance between them is upset, perhaps forever. It is remarkable how consistent the characters’ behaviour and actions are throughout the entire novel, and how these actions resonate so very differently in the context of Before and After.
Gay’s allusions to myth and fairy tale add marvellous texture to the novel, and perhaps go some way toward explaining the flatness I was initially confronted with as I read it. There is a deceptive simplicity to the novel that belies its remarkable originality, as does the fact that it’s a really good read. It’s that rare thing—a page-turner whose pages you’ll still be turning in your head long after the book is done.