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November 19, 2015

My review of Split, by Libby Crewman

splitMy first professional book review was of Libby Crewman’s The Darren Effect in Canadian Notes & Queries in 2008. It was a good book, but a messy one, and I suspect my review probably achieved a similar effect, which sadly was not an aesthetic statement, but was just me figuring out my way. But it also meant that I was looking forward to Crewman’s follow-up, Split, which was published by Goose Lane Editions in September. I read the novel twice as summer turned into fall, and it’s a story that has stayed with me since, in its oddness and perplexities, its curious sideways appeal, but also in the vivid moments that Creelman so stunningly evokes.

A remarkable feature of Split, Libby Creelman’s second novel (after 2008’s The Darren Effect; she is also author of the acclaimed 2000 story collection, Walking in Paradise) is that it isn’t split. Whereas Creelman’s previous book was an impressive tangle of multiple storylines suggesting this short story writer was still finding her way into a different literary milieu, Split—for the most part taut, controlled and smartly plotted—signals Creelman’s arrival proper as a novelist. This new book is an ambitious, assured and most accomplished whole.


This wholeness is doubly (ha!) impressive considering the novel’s movement between two moments in time—2008 on the eve of both Barack Obama’s first election victory and widespread economic meltdown, and during the hot summer of 1975, the year after Nixon’s resignation and just months after the last American troops were removed from Vietnam. The former is the novel’s present day, during which Pilgrim Wheeler returns to her hometown in rural Massachusetts to find her childhood world drastically changed, and must finally reconcile with a tragedy that had wrenched her family apart decades before.

Read the rest of my review at The Rusty Toque!

November 15, 2015

Heyday, by Marnie Woodrow

heyday“It had something to do with Mary Pickford. With beauty. With the Figure 8 ride on a hot June day at just the right moment in time.”

Heyday is the first novel by Marnie Woodrow since the acclaimed Spelling Mississippi more than a decade ago. It’s a book that artfully weaves two stories, one in the present day as Joss mourns the loss of her longtime partner, Bianca, to whom she was never fully committed, and the other about two young women, Bette and Freddy, who meet one day on a roller coaster in 1909. And what connects these stories both is the Toronto Islands, peaceful Ward’s Island where Joss lives alone now but in her grief feels smothered by the attentions of the close-knit island community, and Hanlan’s Point on the other side, which in 1909 was a bustling amusement park, called “Canada’s Coney Island,” and where Freddy and Bette encounter each other for the very first time.

Bette is a single-rider, unnerved by the boy who takes the seat beside her as the roller coaster ride begins, and then intrigued as he whips off his hat to reveal a shock of blonde hair—the boy’s a girl after all. And a friendship begins between them, cultivated over a mutual love of swoops and turns, twists and plummets. Although the girls are worlds apart otherwise. Bette is the daughter of upper-class parents, her father an ardent spiritualist, her mother busy with campaigning for woman’s suffrage, and both parents too involved in their own affairs to pay sufficient attention to their youngest daughter who is mourning the recent loss of her beloved grandmother. Their lack of attention means that she’s able to escape from the confines of home during that summer, however, and make her way across the harbour to Hanlans, where she spends her time becoming utterly bewitched by the charismatic Freddy who works as a ticket-taker in the movie theatre. Although Freddy has secrets of her own, running from a dangerous past that is never far behind her. And as affection between the two girls grows—as they make plans for a future together, daring to consider running away together to New York City, to the actual Coney Island—it becomes clear to Freddy that their relationship might be putting Bette’s life in peril. But does she dare risk it? Or must she sacrifice their friendship to ensure her friend does not become snarled up in her own torrid past?

The novel’s historical detail is evocatively realized, and uncompromising in its sense of immediacy and richness of atmosphere. The sections of Heyday (from the respective perspectives of Bette, Freddy, and Joss) flow together naturally, the past and present timeline subtly connecting with small details. Though how the two sections relate beyond geography is not clear until the novel’s end when it becomes clear that one story might just be a figment of the other. But the spell Woodrow casts is so magnificently done that it doesn’t occur to the reader even to mind this.

November 3, 2015

Rumi and the Red Handbag, by Shawna Lemay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 27, 2015

Fishbowl, by Bradley Somer

fishbowlIt’s true what you might have heard about Bradley Somer’s Fishbowl being a novel that actually chronicles a goldfish’s plummet from the twenty-seventh floor balcony of a high rise apartment building. (I heard my first raves about this book from the Parnassus Books blog.) And yes, the goldfish parts of the novel are actually from the fish’s point of view: at one point, one eye is skyward, and the other is focussed on the ground—what must the world look like like that?; his brain is too limited for a train of thought—it’s more like a handcar. Yes, the fish’s name is name is Ian. And it’s also true what you might have heard about Fishbowl if the thing you’ve heard is that it’s great.

The structure of fishbowl is similar to the apartment building that is its setting, each unit home to its own story, stories stacked on top of stories. Common spaces are spare, unremarkable. Nobody lingers there. For each character it’s easy to imagine that he or she is alone in the world, to disregard the sound of footsteps overhead. But one day when the elevator breaks down, the illusion is shattered. Suddenly lives are intersecting in curious, irrevocable ways. A baby is about to be born. An old man has died. A cheating lover is about to meet his comeuppance. A lonely burly crossdressing construction worker is about to feel more beautiful than he’s ever felt before. And Ian the goldfish is about to be launched upon the ride of his life.

Eschewing a linear narrative for something more like a fish’s grasp of eternity, the novel takes place over a half hour or so, moving back and forth within that span of time (and sometime telescoping omnisciently into a distant future) to examine the period from a variety of points of view. For those ascending the building’s staircase—the elevator is broken, remember—time moves in slow motion, ploddingly, exhaustingly. For the lying cheat upstairs who is hurriedly ridding his bachelor suite of all signs of debauchery, time moves much too fast, not enough of it to allow him to clear away the evidence. For the woman whose baby is coming, everything is happening much too quickly, but also taking forever. And when she finally manages to reach her boyfriend at the pub, he tells her that he’ll be there—after one more round.

Fishbowl is a novel about relativity and relationships, and infinite interconnectedness of things. It’s also funny, absorbing, poignant, rich with twists and surprises, smartly plotted, deep and intelligent. And heartwarming—if you’re into that kind of thing. Underlining that although a person might be lonely, she is never really alone.

September 20, 2015

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

fates-and-furies“…consider sacrificing surprise, the lowest form of literary pleasure, for the much richer satisfaction the first half of this novel can deliver when read in light of the second,” writes Laura Miller in her review of Lauren Groff’s new novel, Fates and Furies, in which spoilers are revealed. A line I delighted in when I first came upon it; that a good book can’t be spoiled is something I’ve long insisted on. But like all good rules, there are exceptions, and I got to thinking about them after reading Miller’s review. There are books—one of my favourite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin is one; a more recent example is Karma Brown’s debut, Come Away With Mealso Kate Atkinson’s wonder A God in Ruins—in which the element of surprise is an integral part of the reading experience. In which the reader gets to the twist, puts the book down and asks, “How did she do that?” When we aren’t even aware that a twist is coming. And then the reader goes on to pick the book up again in order to discover the answer to how did she do that, compelled by the crafting that goes into the kind of book that will never be read the same way twice. Whereas other compelling books—Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train—fail to similarly necessitate another reading. The twists are all. These are books—gripping, great and fun, but still—that can be spoiled merely by being read.

Fates and Furies is not quite either kind of book, but that is not surprising. I still vividly remember reading Groff’s debut, The Monsters of Templeton, for the very first time, and being bowled over by the book’s audacity, by the author’s talent. And with each subsequent book—the story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, and the acclaimed novel, Arcadia—Groff has surpassed all expectations. She’s a writer of huge ambition and even larger canvases, unabashedly literary, unabashedly story, traditional in her approach to crafting fiction, except that she seems to be reinventing the novel every time, pressing at its limits. I’ve spent the last week reading Fates and Furies and being particularly annoyed that anybody imagines Jonathan Franzen to be “a greatest living novelist” (?) when: Lauren Groff. Lauren Groff. Lauren Groff.

(If she were a man and a giant asshole, however, she’d definitely be discussed in those terms.)

There is not a twist in Fates and Furies, per se, but instead a shift. At one point, its shape is described as an X, an intersection. It’s the story of a marriage, but as Robin Black’s review on The New York Times explains, it’s (mercifully!) not so much about the institution of marriage as one marriage specifically, the individuals entwined within. The first half of the book (Fates) is concerned with Lancelot Satterwhite, known as Lotto, destined for greatness from birth. His story a whirlwind, taking us from his childhood growing up wealthy in Florida, his father’s death, his mother’s descent into mental illness, teenage delinquency headed off at the pass via prep school, and the college. And at the end of his four years there, on a cusp (he hopes) of a career as an actor, he meets Mathilde. They marry after a two week courtship, and for the next two decades she supports him through lean times and periods of great success as he finds fame and fortune as a playwright. The reader is party to their healthy sex life, chatter at their popular parties, their quiet moments and their public ones, as well as scenes from some of Lotto’s plays. Mathilda silent in the background, “a saint,” Lotto calls her, as well as a “pathological truth-teller.” The quintessential caregiver, wife.

I wasn’t sure… This is what I reported as I was reading through the novel initially, sometimes finding Groff’s prose overwritten, while at the same time fragmented in a way that was off-putting. The story so male, centred on the penis. Literally and otherwise. It wasn’t overwhelmingly interesting. And yet, I knew there was something. I wasn’t sure what because (uncharacteristically) I’d been avoiding spoilers, but I’d read the headline of Ron Charles’ review in the Washington Post which contained the word “masterful,” and the I’d read the first sentence: “Even from her impossibly high starting point, Lauren Groff just keeps getting better and better.” So I had faith, and I certainly wasn’t bored, just baffled, and it was just that my expectations were oh so high.

And as usual, Lauren Groff met them and then some.

There is not a twist in Fates and Furies, per se, but instead a shift. Midway through the book, the perspective moves to Mathilde’s, and we learn that nothing has been what it seems. And while Lotto’s story is indeed one of fate and luck and fortune, Mathilde has been the true orchestrator of their shared life, pulling strings Lotto never glimpsed (though as we note them dangling when we’re impelled to go back and reread). Mathilde’s story is the Furies of the title, beginning with a tragic childhood and, as Laura Miller writes, “Mathilde’s story contains more outlandishly fictional twists than those of David Copperfield, The Goldfinch’s Theo Decker, and Becky Sharp combined.” It’s all a bit nuts, but fascinating in its intersections with Lotto’s story, how the two parts complement each other. A bit of a relief too.

And fascinating for what the novel says about women’s lives and women’s stories, about the role of the wife, which is nothing like Lotto envisaged. In her acknowledgements, Groff credits the work of Jane Gardam for helping to inspire Fates and Furies, and the reader can see how she was inspired by Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat in her construction of separate universes within a single marriage, all the ways in which we are infinitely unknowable to each other.

Fates and Furies also suggests that men’s stories automatically take precedent in the literary canon. That Lotto’s story comes first is as symbolic as it is for literary emphasis. It would be easy for the reader to miss that Mathilde is a writer as well (and not just in her role as actual co-author of Lotto’s plays, manipulating his work as she did their entire life, perhaps this ensuring success). She’s a little bit Judith Shakespeare, albeit actually writing, but nobody reads it.

Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself
And so shall starve with feeding.
Volumnia says this in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. She—steeling, controlling—is far more interesting than Coriolanus.
Alas, nobody would go to see a play called Volumnia.

(Later we learn that Mathilde writes a play called Volumnia. Nobody goes to see it.)

If there is a twist in Fates and Furies, it occurs in the novel’s final five pages, in which the book’s two sections are woven together in the most beautiful, heartbreakingly lovely manner. In which we realize that this isn’t just about two solitudes and deception, but that even with secrets, misunderstandings and mysteries never solved, there is such a thing as love after all. That the novel is not point and counterpoint, illusion and reality. That like all the great polarities, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

September 14, 2015

Martin John, by Anakana Schofield

martin-john“That’s aggressive, but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.” 

Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, a novel about a sexual deviant and the follow-up to her award-winning Malarky, is primarily a book about language. It’s about sexual violence is able to happen because of words and ideas that are never articulated or defined, and how these ellipses in our understanding go on to create further damage and harm. “It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions. That’s the time it was.”

And so in order to fill in the blank, to ask the questions, to define the it, Schofield has to reinvent the shape of a novel. Eschewing chronology, point-of-view, objectivity, artifice itself for something that more resembles a case study, a long-form incident report. Just the latest for Martin John, the reader supposes, who has been in and out of the care of psychologists, social workers and other medical professionals for much of his life. Though he makes a point to stay out of their way—meddlers—and to keep to his routines, essential. He’s holding down a job as a security guard, lives in a nondescript shabby house in London (albeit one cluttered with the detritus of his media habits), visits his Aunt Noanie on Wednesdays, under specific instruction of his mother back in Ireland. (D’ya hear me, Martin John?) But it’s clear that, no matter his circuits and refrains, this centre (a precarious arrangement orchestrated by the mother) simply cannot hold.

The Mother. Martin John’s mother is a spiritual sister to Our Woman from Malarky, who does make an appearance in this latest book, encountering Martin John in a psychiatric ward. (You might remember him as “Beirut”.) Both women are undone by motherhood, wielding teapots as weapons, this action underlining their powerlessness. And yet. Are they really powerless? Are they bad mothers? Do they do what they do out of love? Or what? Do we blame the mother? Does it even matter? Does being a mother somehow put a woman beyond reproach?

Do we blame the mother? The collective address here is not rhetorical. I’m talking to you, and Schofield’s narrator is talking to all of us:

“She did not the idea she had a role in it.
You would not like the idea you had a role in it.
Did she have a role in it?
Have you had a role in it?
Do you have a role in this?”

Martin John forces the reader to be held accountable for some of the violence contained therein, for that time it was in which people didn’t ask as many questions is happening right now. “A thesaurus of vagueness for remembering,” Schofield writes. Think of a now-infamous CBC presenter, hmm? All this making for a discomforting read, made even more so, remarkably, by the reading not being so discomforting at all.

For a novel about a sexual deviant, Martin John is positively breezy. It’s humorous in places, fast-paced, its momentum spurred on by the arrows separating the text’s sections, part of the book’s overall transit motif. A motif that’s important to understanding the book as a whole, notions of underground and close proximity, of public, that these are people who live among us—they are us. And what are to do about that? The idea of transit and transit maps connecting to Martin John’s behaviour too, his loops and circuits. A sense of inevitability. The way that one thing leads to another: “Strange. Estranged. Estuary ranged.” It all comes back to words again, connections, missed or otherwise.

As Anakana Schofield is a friend of mine, I perhaps cannot be relied for a wholly objective review of her work, those it pleases me immensely that I don’t have to be. Read a rave review (one of many) from the Globe and Mail this weekend, and celebrate Martin John’s deserved appearance on the Scotiabank Giller longlist.

September 5, 2015

Come Away With Me, by Karma Brown

come-away-with-meI am intrigued by questions of how people survive the seemingly unsurvivable, which was the reason I picked up Come Away With Me, Canadian writer Karma Brown’s debut novel. It’s the story of Tegan Lawson who had everything she’d ever wanted—an amazing husband and a baby on the way—when the dream is shattered by a horrific accident. Five months after the tragedy, her husband implores her to pick up the pieces of their life (and perhaps begin to forgive him for the accident, as he was driving the night it happened) by embarking on the trip of a lifetime to Thailand, Italy and Hawaii. Reluctantly, she goes, though she is not sure she’s ready (and neither are their families). And the trip itself does not prove to be the salve it might have been in a lesser novel, all of their troubles simply melting away—Tegan’s not taking her anti-depressants, she’s regularly still overcome with despair, her anger toward her husband seems impossible to let go of. And here we begin to see that this dream getaway is not the end of Tegan’s story but it’s the beginning of new one that’s vastly different than the life she’d planned on and dreamed of.

I read this book with pleasure, appreciating its light touch in particularly after spending a week carrying around the Joan Didion bio. Though it’s essential to note that my full appreciation of its remarkable structure and craft was not clear until close to the end. Until that point, I’d been putting some hollow characterization and a bit of narrative strangeness down to the fact that this was a(n otherwise capable) first novel. “I like this book, but…” I was saying to my husband yesterday. Not supposing that all this was part of an authorial sleight of hand that was so absolutely mind-blowing. By which I mean that the discerning reader should be encouraged to bear with this book: rewards will be forthcoming. You’ll see what I mean.

By rights, this book should be terrifically sad, and while I was discovered in a puddle of tears this morning by my concerned family (who wondered why I was taking even longer than usual to get out of bed), Come Away With Me leaves its reader buoyed and full of hope. In the best ways, it reminded me of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave and also Laurie Colwin’s Shine On Bright and Dangerous Object (which I reread this summer and absolutely adored). It’s an impressive and memorable novel celebrating life and love and the possibilities of survival.

August 17, 2015

A Really Good Brown Girl, by Marilyn Dumont

a-really-good-brown-girlI hadn’t budgeted for books at The Stop Farmers’ Market at Artscape Wychwood Barns a few weeks back, but it turned out that Pedlar Press and Brick Books were vendors (and I met Kate Cayley, whose How You Were Born I loved so much!) so I couldn’t help but pick up something. And I am so glad that the something I got turned out to be the deluxe redesign of Marilyn Dumont’s Gerald Lampert-winning debut collection, A Really Good Brown Girl. A book I read in days, which is rare for me and poetry, but I was captivated by the narrative, the language, the brute force of these poems, as well as their sense of humour, their cheek. “Squaw Poems,” about growing up Metis on the prairies, a household surrounded by “The White Judges” who waited to pounce. And never really went away. But then—

“I am in a university classroom, an English professor corrects my spoken/ English in front of the class. I say, “really good.” He say, “You mean/ really well, don’t you?” I glare at him and say emphatically, “No I/ mean really good.”

This line giving the book its title, a double as so many of the poems show the Metis girl who hears, “You are not good enough, not good enough, obviously not good enough/ The chorus is never loud or conspicuous,/ just there.” And also connecting Dumont not just to her literal foremothers (the women raising Blue Ribbon children with the White Judges looming ) but her literary foremothers too—in her Afterword she writes of the African-American women writers who inspired her, and other Indigenous writers from all around the world. She writes of another really good brown girl in “Helen Betty Osborne”:

Betty, if I set out to write this poem about you/ it might turn out instead/to be about me.

Another poem, “Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald”:

Dear John: I’m still here and halfbreed,/ after all these years/ you’re dead, funny thing… / because you know as well as I/ that we were railroaded/ by some steel tracks that didn’t last/ and some settlers who would settle/ and it’s funny we’re still here and callin’ ourselves halfbreed.

The poems are their own context, but in this new edition they are complemented by Dumont’s Afterword, as well as with an introduction by Lee Maracle:

“No other book so exonerates us, elevates us and at the same time indicts Canada in language so eloquent it almost hurts to hear it.”

I’m so glad I finally read it.

August 16, 2015

This is Happy, by Camilla Gibb

Book Cover This is HappyWhile it is certainly true, as Joan Didion wrote, that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, it is possible that by now the phrase itself has become so hackneyed as to be a cliche, as have become gushing publisher’s copy comparing heartbreaking memoirs to Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking. But while the good people at Doubleday Canada have resisted to the temptation to slap Camilla Gibb’s memoir, This Is Happy, with the Magical Thinking comparison, I think this the rare case in which the comparison really does apply—Gibb’s memoir is a no-holds-barred dispatch about devastating heartbreak from the frontiers of stark grief, a gut-wrenching story told from the perspective of a most cool and discerning “I”. It’s the “telling ourselves stories in order to live” in practice, Gibb, like Didion, pasting the pieces of her shattered life together, the art that emerges from the exercise.

For anyone familiar with Gibb’s fiction, much the memoir will be familiar too, so much of the former rich with autobiographical details, her first two novels in particular. It is clear that Gibb has been telling herself stories in order to live since her success with her first book in 1999, Mouthing the Words, which was also the story of a young girl from a broken home with a troubled father and plenty of trauma, mental illness, and the disillusionment of the Oxford experience. In This is Happy, Gibb goes back to her own beginnings to paint a picture of her early struggles, trying to pinpoint the moment where it all went wrong.

The happy ending was supposed to be Gibb’s marriage, which lasted ten years, to a woman who is called “Anna” in the book. A period of calm, of happiness. She does not slip into depression, she writes, she finds continued literary success. And then in her late thirties, she is surprised by a yearning to have a baby. After a painful miscarriage (though I don’t know there is any other kind), Gibb finds herself pregnant again, still tentatively so—just eight weeks along. When Anna reveals that their relationship is over, that she has fallen out of love with her. Sending Gibb into torrents of grief, which is extra-troubling because of the new life she carries inside her: this was supposed to be a beginning. Instead it’s more of the same, and Gibb fears her child growing up with the same hardships, emotional deprivations, and sense of displacement that plagued her throughout her own childhood. The damage is being done already, she feels, knowing how a fetus is meant to be affected by a mother’s stress. And she is powerless to stop it.

Except that she isn’t, which is the miracle of narrative. That it moves forward, even if one is only crawling in agony. The final third of the book is the story of Gibb’s pregnancy and experience of new motherhood, and it’s not clear for a long time that this will be a story of triumph. For most of this period, Gibb is wracked with despair, receiving special care after the baby arrives—she realizes later—not because her midwife has concerns about lactation, but because she is crying all the time. Gibb resisting a diagnosis of depression in a way I find interesting, because felt similarly when I first became a mother: that this is not depression, it just that life is terrible. Except that for Gibb, returning to antidepressants brings with it some relief. As does the support system that she has built around her as she’s put her life back together again.

In the new home that she has made for herself and her daughter, Gibb is surrounded by her long-estranged bother, an addict struggling to overcome his demons; her nanny, Tita, an immigrant from the Philippines who is waiting to be able to bring her husband to Canada to be with her; as well as friends, but not the ones she might have expected. Her brother builds her a back deck and does home renovations, she and Tita embark upon the complicated dance of an employer and employee who become much more than that. When her daughter is just a few weeks old, Gibb takes her across the country on tour for her novel, The Beauty of Humanity movement, revealing little of her pain in media interviews, though to be fair, most new mothers only ever really understand the mess they were in in retrospect anyway.

It is not a convenient trajectory: this unconventional family arrangement is not the ending either, but a moment in time. Gibb’s brother eventually leaves for Vancouver, his period of sobriety ending; Tita’s husband arrives, and they’re going to need space to become a family of their own. Gibb’s daughter gets older, a little person in her own right. Every resolution brings with it another kind of challenge, but eventually—with the help of her psychoanalyst, her unique support network, and a lot of what she’s learned about herself in the stories she’s told herself in order to live and then interrogated in order to see deeper—she finds some kind of footing:

“This is the circle that could never quite be complete… It is a story with a different ending. A story without an ending at all./ And this, I know, is happy.”

The amazing but necessary understatement of the final statement. Happiness being only an ordinary thing. And it is, and yet one must undergo a certain amount of experience before understanding that there is nothing ordinary about it—Joan Didion wrote about that in Blue Nights.

While Gibb’s own story is harrowing and awful, it emerges not as the most remarkable element of the memoir, which is instead her narrative voice, the “I” that is Didionesque. Not in the rhythms and cadence, for Gibb’s prose is excellent and entirely her own, but in the distance, the coolness, and restraint. The reader is not to imagine herself in Gibb’s shoes on that fateful day when everything changed, when she’d just purchased a freezer full of expensive fish, anticipating dinner parties and occasions unrolling into the future like a ribbon. She gives a sense of what it felt like, but that sense is not the point: the point is what does it mean? What does one make out of this kind of devastation?

And in Gibb’s case, with This is Happy, the answer is a beautiful, powerful book.

July 12, 2015

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits

folded clockOn 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.

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.”

the-folded-clock-a-diaryTime 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.

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