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May 15, 2018

In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, by Claire Tacon

Everywhere you go, you’ll hear somebody complaining about how political correctness is ruining literature, how authors don’t have the freedom to tell the stories they choose, and what a pity it is that these days there’s so much we’re not allowed to say. To which I would reply for a request for specifics: Please, what it is it that you’re no longer permitted to say? And if the answer is that one time you wrote this thing and people on the internet got angry about it: that is not the same thing. As a writer, and a purveyor of language, you really ought to know the difference. Further, if you’ve been reading as much as I have, you’ll be assured that literature is richer than its ever been, as it’s being expanded, enlivened, and including stories and voices we haven’t heard before. With such boundlessness, there’s absolutely no story you’re not permitted to tell—and long as you ensure that you’re telling it with utmost excellence. For which Claire Tacon’s second novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, absolutely sets the standard.

In her novel, Tacon tells the story of Starr, a woman with Williams Syndrome, who has learning challenges and special needs. She also gives voice to Darren, a lovelorn Chinese-Canadian teenager who’s working as a mascot at Frankie’s Funhouse (basically Chuck E. Cheese) in the months before heading to university to study engineering. And Starr’s father, Henry, who is devoted to his daughter, whose love of Frankie’s Funhouse led to his job there repairing animatronic musicians and servicing pinball machines. Henry has even installed a Frankie’s Funhouse set in his basement for Starr’s entertainment pleasure, constructed out of decommissioned machines. And it’s when he learns via an online ad that the one piece he’s missing—Fanny Feathers, the flamingo in cowgirl regalia—is for sale not far from Chicago that he decides to embark upon a road trip with Starr and also with Darren, who’s got a plan to win back his girlfriend at ComicCon.

This is very much a novel about the difficulties of navigating the system as the parent of a disabled adult, the challenges of finding these adults meaningful work, supporting them in independent living situations, and accessing the resources so that parents don’t have to do all this work on their own—except usually this ends up being the case. Starr herself is one of several first-person narrators, so we also see the situation from her point of view as well, her daily joys and frustrations, the challengers of getting along with her roommate and with work colleagues, and how she works to deal with her challenges and anxieties, and with her parents’ expectations. Which are the same challenges that Darren is facing, actually, and also Starr’s younger sister, Melanie, who has always received less attention from her father than Starr has. And Melanie had struggles of her own—she’s trying to get pregnant, and fears a chromosomal abnormality, and what do these fears say about the fact of her sister’s existence? How will Henry react when he learns what Melanie is going through? And what have nearly thirty years of focussing on Starr meant for Henry’s marriage? He’d go to any length to care for his eldest daughter, but can he say the same thing about his wife?

I loved this book. A novel with this many first-person points of view is an ambitious one, but Tacon lives up to the challenge. She gives each of her characters such rich and rewarding back-stories, occupations, and preoccupations—each one enough to fill a book on its own. And as the story progresses, it becomes clear how connected everything is, how multifaceted the symbolism is. This is not a book about Starr, about disability, about a road trip, about an animatronic rat—but instead, it’s about relationships and intersections, and the incredible interconnectedness of all our lives and the things we love, and the ramifications of our behaviour on others that we might fail to consider. It’s about making safe spaces in the world so that Henry can send Starr out into it with assurance that she is valued and included. It’s a novel about trust, in ourselves, in society, and each other. And it’s a triumph.

May 3, 2018

At This Juncture: A Book of Letters, by Rona Altrows

“Dear Joan [of Arc],

It is impossible to know if this letter will get to you. Personally I am agnostic and have no idea whether there is any substance to the Christian praise of life after death for the deserving. Moreover, if there is a heaven, can it be reached by Canada Post? Another unknowable…” 

The premise is this: Ariadne Jensen, a Canadian woman in her fifties, writes to the CEO of Canada Post with a modest proposal to inspire Canadians to start sending letters again (thereby increasing Canada Post’s profits). Letter-writing, for Jensen, has been a lifelong pursuit (she wrote letters to her Aunt Bella in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, from the age of six, and “[t]herefore, in the course of the years we were in postal contact, we purchased, by my calculation, at least 2,392 Canadian stamps”). Unfortunately, it would be difficult for even the most prolific letter-writer to save Canada Post single-handedly, and so she wonders instead if they could come up with a scheme whereby anyone who buys a pack of stamps also receives one of Jensen’s letters, one of her actual letters, or a letter she’s written to a historical figure (see Joan of Arc, above, or another to Lady Gaga) or even fictional letters she’s created between historical figures—from General James Wolfe to his mother, from Helen Keller to her lover, etc. etc. And in reading these letters, Canadians would be inspired to go out and write more letters of their own, buy more stamps, and so it goes. And Canada Post continues on into the future, a venerable institution.

There is no response from the Canada Post, and so Jensen rescinds her offer to write demographically targeted letters in exchange for a small office space, but her project continues and takes the form of Rona Altrows’ new book, At This Juncture: A Book of Letters. Comprising all the different kinds of letters outlined above, which means this book is basically a collection of stories, some of which are linked, and as the book progresses the reader gets a stronger sense of who Ariadne Jensen is and also of the characters who populate her world.

I do have a vague suspicion: I have a suspicion that Rona Altrows herself (an award-winning writer who has published two previous books of short fiction) has a hobby similar to that of Ariadne Jensen, writing gorgeous letters between fictional figures and then she amassed a nice pile of them and then faced the challenge of turning them into a book; i.e. the conceit of Jensen and the effort to save Canada Post was secondary to the book’s actual content, and it’s true while the former is charming, the latter is richer. It’s true too that this is a book that’s targeted toward a very specific audience, but I am that audience and I loved this book.

I love letters. I still don’t write as many as I should, but I try to make up for it with thank-you notes and Christmas cards. I love reading collections of letters (Blanche Howard’s and Carol Shields’ is my favourite), and also epistolary novels, I love writing about things that arrive in the post, and like Ariadne Jensen, I too have lamented the postal system’s decline. And so At This Juncture was right up my street. The prose is beautiful, each letter compelling, and I was curious about the organization of the book, its structure, the poetic fragments that introduced each section. I loved pondering the connections between the letters, wondering what each one’s point of origin might have been, and also enjoyed the glimpses into so many different worlds, different lives. Ariadne Jensen is a memorable character—she reminded me of Lillian Boxfish. And she has partially succeeded in her endeavour, it seems, because upon finishing At This Juncture, what else could I do but go buy a pack of stamps? (With bees!)

May 2, 2018

Time Traveling Books

If you didn’t hear my books column on CBC Ontario Morning today, you can listen again on the podcast.

April 24, 2018

It Begins in Betrayal, by Iona Wishaw

Oh my gosh, I am in love. I’ve been noting Iona Wishaw’s Lane Winslow mystery series since the first title came out in 2016, most because of the spectacular cover design. But it wasn’t until Friday that I’d actually had a copy in my hands—her latest, It Begins in Betrayal —and started reading. Two days and 360 pages later I finally put the book down an unabashed Lane Winslow/Iona Wishaw convert. The book was brilliant! Absolutely in the spirit of Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey mysteries, but smart and fresh in its own right. For lovers of cozy mysteries and British police procedurals—there’s even a murder investigation in which evidence includes fragments of a broken tea set—this title will not disappoint. But of course there are three more in the series before it, so maybe go back to the start?

From where I dove in mid-action, however, it was easy to find my bearings. The novels are set in BC’s interior during the 1940s, and by this fourth title ex-British Spy Lane Winslow who retired to Canada after a tumultuous war is in the throes of love with Police Inspector Frederick Darling—there is a reference to the first time they met when he arrested her. There’s a lot going on here—a woman’s body has been discovered in a remote area with suspicious injuries, obviously murder. But before Darling is able to investigate, he’s called away for a meeting with a mysterious government agent asking questions about the downing of his Lancaster bomber four years before in 1943, an event that killed two men in his crew. And the questions he’s being asked are not so straightforward—turns out Darling is about to be charged with murder, a hangable offence.

Thankfully Darling has Lane Winslow in his corner, with her wits, savvy, and intelligence connections. When he’s summoned to London and put in jail, she follows across the ocean to find out more about this vast conspiracy that’s engulfed Darling and his reputation—and can’t help turning up contacts with people from her espionage days whom she’d fled to Canada in hopes of ever avoiding. Could what’s happening to Darling have something to do with her after all? And is she willing to put her own life on the line to save him by travelling into Berlin to spy on the Soviets? If she does, will it even work?

As Darling waits in jail, and Lane works with his lawyer to figure out the real story of what’s happening, Darling’s subordinate back home is at work solving the murder of the woman in the woods, which also has ties to the woman’s family in England and her sister who’d been jilted decades before, and he and Lane assist each other via a couple of rare and miraculous transatlantic phone calls, thereby weaving this wide-reaching story neatly together. And it was such a pleasure to read it, the humour, the intelligence, the underlying feminism. Lane on the world of espionage: “…she was beginning to think the entire enterprise was run by a group of men who had never advanced past the age of thirteen.” The writing was wonderful, the plotting rock-solid, and I adored these characters. Can’t wait to delve into the backlist and discover what I’ve been missing.

April 17, 2018

1979 and That Time I Loved You

Ray Robertson’s new novel, 1979, is set in Robertson’s hometown, Chatham, ON, the story Tom Buzby, of a small town paperboy who once come back from the dead and now everybody thinks he must have some uncanny knowledge of the world and its workings. Which he does, actually, but in a more practical sense than assumed, the way he’s privy to glimpses of private lives, and wise to the cycles and seasons of the town and its residents. He’s not sure either why everybody thinks he’s got access to wisdom, but that’s because he takes his point of view for granted, his unique perspective on ordinary lives, and the fact that there is really no such thing.

Full disclosure: not a long happens in this book. Tom dies and comes back from the dead before the story starts, which is also when his mother, a former stripper turned religious zealot, runs off with the pastor, leaving her tattoo-artist husband to care of Tom and his older sister Julie. There’s a simmering tension involving Tom’s dad finally buying his own property, and the destruction of a local building to make way for a downtown mall, but otherwise it’s Tom on his paper-round, listening to his sister’s records, hanging out with his friends, thinking about his mother, checking out the books at Cole’s, and trying to impress an older girl by lying and telling her he’s read Fear of Flying. All of these characters are richly and sympathetically imagined, and realized.

It might be a two hour drive from Chatham to Wingham, but I still got an Alice Munro vibe from Robertson’s small town scenes, and this was underlined by the “newspaper stories” that are scattered through the novel. Imagined stories (‘Young Woman Finds Ontological Comfort in New Pair of Pants:’ “When I Look at Them, They Remind Me of Who I am”; ‘Man Grows Old and Cranky:’ “I Knew it Happened to Everyone, but Somehow I Thought in My Case There Might Be an Exception”; ‘Man Found Dead in Next-Door Neighbour’s Swimming Pool:’ “I didn’t Necessarily Want to Die, but I Didn’t Want to be Alive Either”) providing readers with access to the inner lives of the people who are secondary characters in Tom Buzby’s own tale, giving answers to questions that Tom does not yet have the age and experience to be asking—although he’s already haunted by a sense that they’re coming.

The book is rich with allusions to literature and music, and one reference specifically informs the project, the poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters, which narrates the epitaphs of residents of a small town. Robertson’s take with the newspaper stories is similar in approach, and connects with Tom’s job (and downtown circuits) in a meaningful way. The result is beautifully crafted, a rich and textured perspective of small town life, a nostalgic journey that resonates with the world of today.

When I picked up Carrianne Leung’s new book next, That Time I Loved You, it was purely a coincidence, and I wasn’t expecting a connection. Until the first paragraph, of course: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade  6. Elsewhere in world, big things were happening. McDonalds introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides…”

These two books are excellent companions, perfect contenders for “If you like this, read…” pairings. Instead of small town Ontario and the past meeting the future, Leung is chronicling the suburbs and the possibility of escaping the past. The setting is Scarborough, where brand new houses with their leafy lawns on winding streets represent fresh starts, new beginnings for the immigrant families who imagine they’ve finally arrived after years of struggle. There’s even a kid with a paper route, Josie, who’d inherited the route from her big brother: “Josie loved her routine and the sense of purpose her job gave her. She loved collecting the money at the end of the week from the neighbours, who often slipped her cookies, candy or even a tip.”

Although the centre of this novel is Josie’s best friend June, another first-generation Chinese-Canadian who revels in the expansiveness and freedom of her childhood, playing outside with her packs of friends until the streetlights come on. Like Tom Buzby, June has her eye on things, and she’s got surprising insight into the lives of her neighbours, although she doesn’t understand everything she learns either—least of all, why there’s been a suicide epidemic, and whose parent was going to be next?

A novel in stories is a perfect container for this book about the suburbs, every chapter a different house on the street. Open the door and go inside to find a different story, a closet full of secrets, a peek out the window to a new view of the street. The Portuguese housewife who is tired with putting up with her abusive husband; the young Italian-Canadian wife who has moved to Scarborough away from downtown, and who longs for a baby that doesn’t come; the neighbourhood social butterfly who is secretly a thief, and whose habits eventually get found out by her neighbours. Plus June’s friends, sweet and effeminate Nav, Darren whose academic potential is undermined by a racist teacher, and Josie, whose uncle is sexually abusing her. As with Robertson and the news articles, Leung’s structure permits her to include a wide range of different voices, and to suggest there is no such thing as a central narrative, but instead to shine a light on these remarkable places where stories intersect.

April 10, 2018

A Dangerous Crossing, by Ausma Zehanant Khan

Everything is a little too close to home in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s latest mystery, A Dangerous Crossing. Inspector Esa Khattak’s best friend Nathan Clare’s sister Audrey has gone missing from the migrant camp in Lesvos where she’d been working for a Canadian non-profit, fast-tracking Syrian refugees to Canada. An Interpol officer is dead and Audrey has disappeared—is she responsible for the murder? Where has she gone? Has she been taken, and by who? And how to account for the discrepancies between Audrey’s official business with the non-profit and what she’s actually been up to?

To stave off a diplomatic nightmare, Esa and Rachel fly to Greece and are overwhelmed by what they find there—the enormity of the need, the scarcity of resources, the boatloads of people that continue to arrive on the shores. And the people themselves, each with their own stories, people who balk at being considered part of a refugee “crisis.” Words matter, as Khan makes clear throughout the novel. What is the crisis? Are these migrants or refugees? All of these questions (and the story of the refugees in general) distracting from the matter at the heart of it all, the brutal war and tyranny in Syria, torture and war crimes, the devastation from which people are running for their lives. The details are hard to stomach, but necessary to witness, especially to understand their ramifications. Which manifest in so many ways—human trafficking, the rise of violent nationalism, the arrival of refugees, PTSD, corruption and abuse of power, and more.

This is a powerful and moving story that manages to weave these huge narrative strands together in a believable fashion. I had a harder time with the personal stories of Esa, Rachel and Nate—part of it is that Esa and Rachel are both characters who seem to be at a remove, and so these rare glimpses into their souls can sometimes only reveal a stranger. (Oh, Esa! How could you!!) I also got the feeling that this was a transitional novel in terms of the characters’ personal lives and some of the scenes in the middle felt like work to get to arrival, but I really like where they end up—Rachel’s revelations about her feelings towards Esa in particular was really beautiful.

Khan is a gorgeous writer, her prose is backed up by her background in international human rights law, and—though her previous novels suggest it this one definitely confirms it—she can craft a detective story up there with the best of them.

April 3, 2018

“Enlarge and Complicate”

I’ve been reading so much lately—book after book, and while my backlist TBR shelf is suffering from neglect (I have a Penelope Mortimer book waiting, for heaven’s sake…) the wonders of Spring 2018 Canadian books are overwhelmingly good. I’m averaging about three books a week, and it’s still not enough for me to read everything I want to read, which is why I cannot be entirely despondent about the state of “CanLit” even as its politics give us very good reason to wonder what the point is. But the point, of course, is the books, and the books are excellent, and I’m also grateful that so many of these excellent books are written by people of colour (even if I think it’s a bit of a dry season for books by Indigenous writers, Terese Marie Mailhot’s amazing memoir Heart Berries—which I read last week—the only one that’s really on my radar…)

Anyway one book that stands out even though I read it in a whirlwind in early February (to see if it would be a good addition to the 49thShelf.com “#MeToo Reading List” I made; and hey, it was!) was The Red Word, by Sarah Henstra. It was a mindfuck of a book, such hard work, but also impossible to put down, incredibly compelling, a novel about campus culture, sexual violence, culpability, and the meaning of justice. I had the opportunity to ask Sarah some questions about her book over at 49th Shelf, and her answers were fantastic:

49th Shelf: The Red Word is hard work, in the very best way. It complicates binaries, messes with our notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Why was it important for you that this book not be a polemic? And was it difficult to make that happen?

Sarah Henstra: The Red Word tackles complicated subject matter, so I felt it warranted a complicated treatment. My decision to have the Raghurst women stage their attack on the fraternity the way they do arose from two separate impulses I felt as a writer, one having to do with what story I was telling and the other with how to tell the story. In the 1990s on college campuses (as elsewhere), the dice were so loaded against the survivors of sexual violence that justice seemed an impossible prospect. The young women in the novel are so frustrated with inequality, so sick of recording and reacting to the misdeeds of the frat boys without seeing any real changes, that they believe this is the only way forward, and they’re convinced—for a while, at least—that the ends will justify the means.

In terms of the story’s structure, I sought a scenario that would leave open the maximum number of possible resolutions in order to allow readers to remain curious and to consider a wide variety of perspectives and points of view. After all, it’s the unexpected consequences of the plot—those surprise moments when events blow up way past the characters’ intentions—that keep us reading.

I’ve always liked Susan Sontag’s assertion (in her 2004 lecture on South African Novel laureate Nadine Gordimer) that good novelists are “moral agents” precisely because the stories they tell don’t moralize but instead “enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.” It definitely took this book longer to find a publisher because of its lack of a “redemptive” or “hopeful” resolution, though. “What is the takeaway here for feminism?” one editor asked me. Luckily, the editors who strongly connected with it (Amy Hundley at Grove, Susan Renouf at ECW) loved it precisely for its refusal to come down cleanly on one side of the conflict.

Go here to read our entire exchange.

March 29, 2018

The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, by Jennifer Quist

I listened to a wonderful segment on CBC’s The Current this morning about the necessity of changing our relationship with death, of re-familiarizing death as a concept and inventing (or rediscovering) rituals for it to be woven into the fabric of our lives. This same directive has also been the force behind Jennifer Quist’s first two novels, both of which were odd and oddly compelling, books that particularly preoccupied with death and the macabre. I read both of them and found them well-written and remarkable, but never quite knew what to make of them as a reader, let alone a reviewer. However Quist’s third novel, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, is the one I finally feel as though I’ve got a handle on—and I’m grateful to her publisher, Linda Leith Publishing, for their investment in voices who are a little outside the ordinary, in writers who are daring to do something different.

And of course, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner is also about death, but the lens is wider here, and so too is the story’s resonance. Whereas Quist’s previous novels were concentrated on individual families and their esoteric habits and rituals, The Apocalypse… involves two very families,  the interactions and intersections between those two families, and also with other individuals with a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. At the centre of the novel is Morgan Turner herself, three years after the brutal murder of her sister Tricia. Three years after so that some of the shock and trauma of such a violent crime has faded away, and the narrative can consume itself with ideas beyond conventional grief and loss. Important too: Morgan and Tricia were not especially close, and her sister’s death has not left a gaping hole in Morgan’s life. Also, Morgan Turner is not a person who demands a lot of life or the world anyway—she’s content enough taking the bus every day to her job washing dishes in a fast food restaurant. So that she might not rail at the universe for all its injustices the way another character would who’d see herself at that universe’s centre.

Which is not to say that Morgan isn’t questioning: how does a person begin to move on after such a tragedy? The question particularly relevant as the trial for Tricia’s accused killer is coming up, and he’s planning to plead that he’s not criminally responsible for what happened to him. Which, naturally, is upsetting for the entire Turner family, although they all handle it in different ways. Morgan’s parents, Marc and Sheila, are divorced, and Marc has made himself a (rather self-serving) media sensation for his forgiveness of his daughter’s killer—and Quist’s black humour is apparent here with her poignant portrayal of the pretty ridiculous Marc, as compared to his ex-wife:

Sheila’s anger is always raw and steaming, irresolvable. Her story is tenacity‚ chasing Finnemore toward a crushing, punishing destiny she has already publicly denounced as insufficient. When she and Marc divided up their archetypes, he chose the wrong side. His story of cooling and moving on—a loud, public claim of letting go. Soon, he will have to stop talking about it, stop posing for it, stop pleading for it, and do it.

Morgan’s feelings manifest in stranger ways—she becomes preoccupied with horror films, she ones she remembers from during the brief time her sister had been a film studies major before she dropped out of school. She also becomes obsessed with the abattoir where her brother works, and ends up getting job in the factory kitchen, where she connects with Chinese colleagues over an obsession with Korean soap operas. Meanwhile, she’s attending meetings with the crown attorney who’ll be prosecuting the case, not her lawyer, no. The family doesn’t have a lawyer, of course, or a real place in this process (which is part of the reason that Morgan doesn’t know what to do). The lawyer prosecuting the case has a family of his own, a sister Morgan encounters one day while she’s clearing tables in the restaurant where she works. This is Gillian, “a Mormon do-gooder,” who pops in and out of Morgan’s life after that. And Gillian’s other brother, Paul, who is schizophrenic and who is grappling with his own problems with the legal system. And together, all of these characters provide Morgan with the spiritual scaffolding to process what happened to her sister and her family, and to begin to move on with her life.

I loved this book. Quist’s narratives are always rich and compelling, and this latest novel is no exception. It’s sad and brutal, but also sweet and funny, and all its characters are so real. It also becomes such a page turner as the story progresses, the trial nearing its end, Morgan’s desperate attempt to be there for the verdict—there is so much tension. We’re also been privy to the lawyer working into the early hours of morning on the case, and how high are the stakes, and what does it all mean? And where do we find that meaning, which is the novel’s central question, and Morgan Turner’s revelation. Revelation being another word for “apocalypse,” which is only just about destruction and devastation as we understand it in the pop-cultural sense, but instead what is revealed by devastation, a divine truth. Or truths, maybe, which is what happens here with the generosity of the people Morgan meets, with what they show her, unwittingly, or otherwise, about this awful, amazing, brutal, beautiful world.

March 27, 2018

Catch My Drift, by Genevieve Scott

I was always going to have an affinity for Genevieve Scott’s debut novel, Catch My Drift. Its protagonist, Cara, is nearly my exact contemporary, and I also have a strong fascination with the 1970s’ Toronto that brought my parents together and delivered us all into the world I remember from my childhood. I’m also kind of crazy about Swim-Lit, although Catch My Drift is only really pool-centric in the first chapter, which is when Cara’s mother Lorna is a on the cusp of trying out for the Varsity swim team at the University of Toronto. It’s 1975, and swimming is her entire identity, her whole life. Which has already been rocked by the end of a romance and a car accident in which her knees were injured, undermining her swimming potential. It’s summer and she’s training at the pool where her roommate is a lifeguard, sneaking in for laps just before closing. But when it comes time to prove herself, Lorna flinches, setting in motion the rest of her life, for better or for worse.

We meet Cara in the next chapter, 1987, nine-years-old, and see Lorna now, no longer a woman on the cusp of her life, but instead a mom. A mom who’s dealing with an unreliable partner, the domestic demands of parenthood, and the consequences of a life she made that hasn’t turned out like she might have imagined. But all this is on the periphery—the narrative is filtered through the perspective of Cara, for whom her mother doesn’t really exist as a character in her own right yet. And so the story goes, moving back and forth from mother to daughter as the years go on, as Cara develops into her own person and Lorna reconciles with her own choices, a life with a lot she is proud of. Although at this point, we’re still seeing her through the disdainful eyes of her teenage daughter, who is grappling with her own questions about the kind of woman she wants to be, so it’s complicated. But it is the subtle softening of Cara’s understanding of her mother, her own emerging sympathy for her that is my favourite part of the novel, and culminates in an ending I feared would be heartbreaking but ended up being perfect and beautiful.

Not everything is subtle in Catch My Drift. Some secondary characters border on caricature. This is a novel composed of pieces and the shape of it all is a little unwieldy. In some places it reads like a first novel…but the more I read, the more assured I was by the project, and the more the story appealed to me beyond simple nostalgia. Partly because it becomes clear that nostalgia is a point the novel hangs on—what do we remember and why? What version of reality are those memories made of? How did we get from here to there? What are the consequences of our actions, both in our own destinies and in the lives of others? Because the answers are wondrous and far-reaching, even in the most ordinary lives.

March 26, 2018

A One-Handed Novel, by Kim Clark

It’s a quandary, certainly, and not one I’ve ever encountered in fiction before. Melanie Farrell has already done most of the things you read about in novels—she’s come of age, gotten married, been divorced, confronted a life-changing diagnosis (Multiple Sclerosis) etc. etc., but now in Kim Clark’s A One-Handed Novel, her doctor delivers her some devastating news. Her disease is progressing (not news) and a neurological test has revealed she has just six orgasms left. Six! And she’s already spent once since the test, she realizes—what to do? And so begins her journey to use those remaining orgasms to their best and fullest potential, to make each one count. But then best intentions have always been Melanie’s downfall—witness the items on her Twelve Days of Christmas list, which are most consistently “liquor” and “guilt”. With hilarity and so much heart, Clark takes her reader on Melanie’s journey to make the most of her remaining orgasms. A comic novel about MS—who would have thought it? But it’s also about sex, about coming to terms with one’s bodily limitations, and about friendship, money, hope, and community. It’s not so narratively taut—a third of the way through the remaining orgasms conceit is put aside while Melanie travels to Costa Rica for the expensive and controversial “liberation therapy” which fails to deliver the results she is looking for. Clark also relies too much on humour to carry the story, poignant moments rushed by to arrive at a wisecrack. The end of the novel also crosses the line beyond ridiculous and I feel like some meaning gets lost in the absurdity…and yet. And yet, how can you criticize someone’s narrative trajectory in their comic novel about MS? I feel like the humour and absurdity is a form of resistance, against the cliches and inspiration readers are often seeking in memoirs of disability and illness. The narrative’s all-over-the-placecess too is appropriate for a story of a progressive disease, with the arrival of symptoms where they’re least expected, some improvement, a step forward and two steps back, and then the possibilities that arrive with wild hope, that necessary wild hope—maybe indeed liberation therapy in Costa Rica will produce a miraculous cure? A progressive illness is not a straight line, but neither is any life experience, and so to expect a story to conform to such neatness is an awful lot to ask. I really enjoyed this book, its humour, its wildness, and its point of view—and my appreciation for it was underlined by an understanding of Clark’s background as a playwright. Because while this not the most perfectly shaped novel I have ever read, Clark has got her character’s voice (first person) so exactly perfect. It’s a voice for a monologue, a voice that begs to be performed, funny, generous and wise, and it’s a voice that echoes in the reader’s mind long after the novel is finished.

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