July 19, 2015
Good news, if you are one who has constructed your identity along the lines of, “Everything I need to know I learned from Atticus Finch.” Because, contrary to what you may have heard, his wisdom features in Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s new old book, her second book that is actually her first book and which is perhaps not a book at all but merely a draft of one. Lines like, “Hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anybody.” And also, “You must see things as they are, as well as what they should be.” Go Set a Watchman is not an incredible novel, though I liked reading it well enough, but it’s a remarkable artifact. (Confession: I may not have bothered reading it were the cover not so wonderful, so terrifically vintage.) I feel okay about reading it as rumours of Harper Lee’s lucidity seem fairly convincing, and I love when book news is so huge—on Tuesday, Watchman was on the six o’clock news. Book sales are good in general too, and so. Scout Finch grows up to be Midge from Mad Men—it’s kind of a amazing. And this Atticus, if he is in fact the same Atticus we know from To Kill a Mockingbird (and keep in mind that he is not Gregory Peck in any case) is indeed a racist, though I wasn’t as disturbed by his views as some readers have been because a) I live in the world and I am well aware that plenty of people think this way (and closer to home, his views about the backwardness of Black communities are identical to those I’ve heard about First Nations communities in my own country) and b) I know he is a fictional character. And it baffles me how readers seem to be so bothered by having the fictionalness of fictional creations pointed out to them (in this book, in incongruities between Attitcuses, or in Kate Atkinson’s God in Ruins at her book’s surprising twist at the end). To me, the fictionalness of a fiction is its most compelling characteristic. I love when a fictional universe is so absolutely rendered that I can see right to its edges. And so I am more interested in two Attitcuses and the two novels than I am betrayed or dismayed by them or their incongruences. Atticus Finch was never my hero. I have read the book more times than I’ve seen the movie, and for me, it’s Scout. Not to undermine the Atticus devotees or to suggest that Mockingbird isn’t a ridiculously good novel, because it is. I’ve read it at least once in the last decade and couldn’t believe how good it was. But then I didn’t reread it last week, which is key. Last week I was rereading a pretty unsatisfactory novel published recently (and it wasn’t even a first draft) so it was this to which I compared Watchman when I read it, and not To Kill a Mockingbird. It is possible that to be as good as or better than To Kill a Mockingbird is an unfair thing to demand of any book, no matter who wrote it.
- Read Hadley Freeman’s “With critics like these, it’s no wonder Harper Lee stayed silent”
- Lawrence Hill’s review in the Globe is wonderful. “But it is a pity that Go Set a Watchman was not published in the 1950s, when it would have shaken up readers, provoked even more calls for book bans …and accelerated public discussions of women’s sexual freedom.”
- And Heather Birrell’s review too, on what’s going on in Watchman and why Mockingbird still resonates
July 15, 2015
It’s a familiar story: an isolated mother begins sharing stories of her family life, expressing her frustrations with domestic life and the challenges of motherhood. Building a platform out of adversity—she’d been a single mom for a while, had a fraught relationship with her own mother. Largely self-taught, not necessarily ambitious. Hard-working, yes, but credits her success to doors opening by happenstance. Her platform growing to huge audiences, but she’s still not properly respected. She’s telling stories about kids and laundry, after all. But she keeps on telling those stories for nearly three decades, her success bringing with it fame but also certain challenges: what are the ethics of writing about one’s children, one’s family? When you’ve made a career out of telling their stories but their lives are becoming separate from yours, what kids of stories do you tell instead? And how to deal with trolls, online critics out for attack who seem to forget that you’re actually a human being?
It’s a career trajectory not so far removed from that of many popular bloggers, although Lynn Johnston’s began in the 1970s and her “platform” was the comic, “For Better or For Worse”, syndicated daily in newspapers across North America. And when I saw recently that she’d listed a book Erma Bombeck as one of her most influential reads, the whole thing made sense to me. That Johnston, like Bombeck, was one of blogging’s foremothers, and in particular with the immediacy of her strip, domestic life unfolding in real time.
Lynn Johnston’s life and career are outlined in the new book, For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, a book released to coincide with a retrospective of Johnston’s work on exhibit now at the Art Gallery of Sudbury until November. The book includes full colour and black and white comics from the course of Johnston’s career, as well as examples of her early work, a discussion of her influences, and notes of the creative work she’s been up to since her strip ended in 2008. It’s fascinating reading, a behind-the-scenes look at her work that’s still so familiar to me—the Pattersons, their friends and neighbours. Which, like the best blogs, is not ephemeral at all.
July 12, 2015
On Monday evening, I became overwhelmed by an irrational compulsion to go out and purchase a copy of Heidi Julavits’ new book, The Folded Clock: A Diary. Like I really needed another book, but there was something about this one—I’d been reading about it at edge of evening over the past month or so—and I not only had a car (I was visiting my parents in Peterborough where the chain bookstore is open late) but I had no one sensible to talk me out of an out-of-the-way jaunt to the bookstore past the children’s bedtime, so we went and I am so glad we did. It would be a shame if my totally irrational compulsion purchase turned to be disappointing, but it was amazing, mind-blowing. I read it once and then went through it again in my hammock yesterday, making notes, trying to figure the whole thing out. It doesn’t hurt that the cover designer is Leanne Shapton, though the only bad thing about that is that the cover got damaged in my bag and now I am a little bit devastated.
- Read Eula Biss’s New York Times review of The Folded Clock
- Read Heidi Julavits’ tumblr, The Keeping Society: Objects and Ephemera from The Folded Clock
The Folded Clock is a diary, though it’s a most peculiar diary. Chronology is jettisoned in favour of an arrangement of time that is and isn’t wholly random. A year’s worth of entries, each one beginning with, “Today I…” The book’s inspiration, Julavits writes, coming from an experience she had revisiting the diaries of her young, writing that she’d always imagined was her foundation as a writer, and finding instead of a foundation that, “The actual diaries revealed me to possess the mind of a paranoid tax auditor.” Time itself, she notes, had changed, becoming sweeping, a simple day insubstantial. She’d also recently borne a serious illness, one that challenged her perceptions of time: “It was no longer linear; it did not cut through my day like a road. I did not see time ahead of me. I experienced time on top of me.”
Time is a preoccupation of the entries in The Folded Clock, as evidenced by the title. Time itself not linear—many of the “Today I…” entries are actually about events decades-old, inspired by objects or experiences in the present day—and there is the issue of the construction of the book itself, which was deeply revised and shaped over another period of time divorced from the immediacy of the diary. Parenthood is another preoccupation connected to time—the impossibly tiny span of a childhood, which spins out of our control, and then conversely (but not really), the unbearable vastness of time in a child’s company: “how can this day not mostly involve my waiting for it to be over?”
The diary’s various settings become familiar—the writer’s apartment in New York City, the community in Maine where Julavits, her husband and their children spend their summers, the German villa where they’re living while her husband is on a fellowship, and various artist retreats to which she escapes throughout the year. There is nothing haphazard in the entries’ arrangement, so that we’re introduced to a concept or thing or incident and will be referenced later, our knowledge taken for granted. Less obviously, the entries seem contextualized from a future vantage point so that each one takes its reader somewhere—a mini-essay every one. There is cohesion to the entire project, though the patterns are difficult to discern. Which is the point, Julavits points out, in one of the several clues she offers throughout the book pertaining to its curious construction:
“What’s on the page appears to have busted out of my head and traveled down my arms and through my fingers and my keyboard and coalesced on the screen. But it didn’t happen like that; it never happens like that.”
The Folded Clock is a book about the puzzles and mysteries of an ordinary comfortable life. For me, one of those mysteries is the way that a book—an object wholly apart from my existence, until I bought it—can appear to be reading my mind, stealing my life. (I have this experience also when I am reading Rebecca Solnit.) Like Julavits’ whole chapter about Wasted: The Preppie Murder, by Linda Wolfe, and being three fucks away from Robert Chambers—not that I have ever been such a thing, but I have a thing about that book. Or about abortions as women’s work, about how the boyfriends are always informed but they’re never there—abortions are something that happen between friends. About the internet and desire, about conscious attempts to resist the google-ization of everything—which is interesting because there is at first glance something so bloggish about Julavits’ approach, and yet the construction of her entries is so counter to blogging’s immediacy. The Folded Clock is a bit of a throwback, a project decidedly analogue.
It works because the writing is wonderful: lines like, “Worrying about originality is like worrying about the best place to hang your wall phone.” Anecdotes that start with, “Once I stole the name of a fetus.” How could you not want to read the rest? And while her prose style isn’t Didion’s, Julavits has that writer’s ability to lay down a thread and appear to be following it, while she is in fact blazing an altogether different trail. Connections, symbioses, and coincidence—all interwoven, meaningful and nothing by the by. And always, unfailingly, interesting. The question of whether male writers ever consider female writers a threat. The nature of relationships. Some of these entries made me uncomfortable, sometimes because I couldn’t identify, and other times because I could. And any diary worth its salt should garner such a response.
I loved this weird wonderful beautiful book, a book that was also easy to read in little bits—important when I was caring for my children without a break last week. A book I knew I needed before I needed it, and there is something otherworldly about the whole thing. Or perhaps I mean the opposite, that the book—with its preoccupation with objects and thingness and remarkable beauty as a thing itself—is eerily all too wordly—but then its not, it’s so rarefied, no matter how much it seems to have busted out of a head, out of the earth.
But still, it’s the kind of object one wants to go around clutching. Last week I wrote down directions to my friend’s house on a yellow post-it note that I promptly lost, mysteriously—which is another of Julavits’ preoccupations, the way that an object can dematerialize. When I found the post-it note again yesterday between the end pages and the back cover, I was not at all surprised. And I left it there. I will discover it again the next time I read the book, and of course I will remember.
July 5, 2015
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the trouble with comic heroines, their forever blunders, self-deprecation and “one-downmanship”, and about how female characters are not often permitted access to what novelist Kate Christensen refers “an august tradition of hard-drinking, self-destructive, hilarious anti-heroes” ala Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. Christensen was talking here about the protagonist of her first novel, In the Drink, a character who ended up being pegged as a not-quite-Bridget-Jones (without the sweetness)—it was the late ’90s after all. But nearly 20 years later, readers still don’t quite know what to do with a female counterpart to a character like Amis’s Lucky Jim—a character who messes up, isn’t necessarily loveable, and who doesn’t care if you don’t like it. A character like Lily Wilder, the hard-drinking, crazy-for-sex heroine of Eliza Kennedy’s debut novel, I Take You.
But I loved her. I did. Within the first few pages it is clear that Lily drinks too much, swears religiously, and has no compunction about casual sex as long as the sex is excellent, and it was all so refreshing. That she was a bit silly, but not stupid. That she was empowered, interesting, and nobody’s victim. Which is not to say that she hasn’t herself in quite a pickle as the novel begins: Lily is engaged to Mr. Wonderful—it’s been a whirlwind—and she’s pretty sure she even loves him, but she still can’t kick her habit of picking up men in bars and in elevators, and, well, everywhere. Lily wants to marry Will, because he’s a smart choice and Lily is wise enough to be in the habit of making these. But she doesn’t seem ready to become domesticated—and now the wedding is just days away.
The thing about Lily Wilder is that she’s happy. In fact, she insists upon her happiness, her value, which is rare with comic heroines. She is not a problem to be solved, and she doesn’t want to be fixed. She just wants to have it both ways—but how?
The story is set in Key West, Lily’s hometown, where she runs into a childhood friend with whom she has a complicated past. Her father, a dashing Lothario, is in town for the wedding, and so are all his ex-wives, plus Lily’s friends, and Will’s too—she accidentally sleeps with one of the groomsmen. So things aren’t at all straightforward even beyond the state of the forthcoming union, plus Lily has to do some work while she’s on her vacation, coaching a client for an upcoming deposition—her law firm is defending an oil company whose drilling explosion has caused massive devastation throughout the Gulf.
Madcap shenanigans ensue, with lots of smart writing, funny dialogue, and plenty of explicit sex—the prose is as shy as Lily is. The novel suffers from two problems, which seem somewhat incongruous—the first is that the political ramifications of the plots are heavily underlined in expository dialogue. I get that this is a huge revolution, a heroine who loves sex and is unabashed about it, that there is a massive double standard at work in which men get to be awesome for sleeping around but women get to be sluts. Though perhaps these underlinings would be helpful to a reader who is a little less unaware than I am. My second criticism is that the ending was a bit too neat, though the neatness was satisfying, but my eyebrows were just a little but raised.
But never mind, because I devoured this book in 24 hours, stayed up late reading, enjoyed myself immensely, and laughed out loud more than once. It’s a book that promised to be funny, and it really really was (although funny is subjective—Goodreads reviewers seem to disagree with me on this point, although it’s possible that they’re all idiots). It’s a book that surprised me, didn’t underestimate my intelligence, and dared to be different from almost every book I’ve ever read. A book that underlines also that women are complex, interesting people, and their comic heroines deserve to be just the same. And this one is.
I Take You is fantastic.
July 2, 2015
Emily Urquhart’s Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Hidden Genes, is an interesting companion to Eula Biss’s On Immunity, both books inhabiting a fascinating creative space bridging science and lore, and underlining the expansiveness and importance of issues and ideas raised by motherhood. Both books also show the ways in which the experience of motherhood has a trajectory rich with unexpected directions, taking a mother to places she is rarely forecasting, not least of all at that pivotal, complicated, loaded moment when she sees her new baby for the first time.
For Urquhart, that moment was especially loaded. Her daughter was born in St. John’s Newfoundland on Boxing Day 2010 with a crown of snow white hair. From all around the hospital, people came to see the baby with the unusual hair, and it all seemed quite natural to Urquhart, a scholar of folklore in which wondrous children are often born on ominous days and people come from all around to see. It soon becomes clear, however, that matters are more complicated, when doctors determine that Baby Sadie has albinism. While initially, this diagnosis is upsetting, being not what Urquhart had envisioned for her child—Sadie has vision problems, her skin is extremely sensitive to sun damage, Urquhart imagines the social difficulties Sadie will encounter in looking different from her peers—she and her husband embark upon their own journey toward understanding their daughter’s genetic condition and loving her difference (for it is a part of the person they love, after all). It’s a journey that takes them to North American Albinism conferences, to Tanzania to learn about organizations dedicated to assist children with albinism whose lives are threatened by witch doctors who use their body parts for “medicine,” and them back into Urquhart’s own family tree to learn the history of her daughter’s particular genetic makeup.
It’s a journey that Urquhart spends much of the time finding her way on, seeking answers to her questions, examining her feelings and perspectives, feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed, unsure and ill-at-ease. Which makes her an unusual commander of a literary ship, so used to are we of being guided by a voice that is large and confident. On one hand, this undermines the book a little bit—the depth and refinement of Urquhart’s thought is understated. And yet this quality distinguishes the book as well, that Urquhart shows her work, her process—here is a different kind of non-fiction, one reflecting a truer experience of one embarking out into the unknown. Like Maria Mutch’s mesmerizing Know the Night, Beyond the Pale is a parenting memoir that takes its reader deeper into the world.
June 28, 2015
When I was away last weekend, Kate Cayley’s story collection, How You Were Born, was an ideal literary companion. Slimish, perfectly packaged, each story its own realized vision. Its effect more muted and subtle than Rhonda Douglas’s Welcome to the Circus, another short story collection I’ve loved lately, but still—so very good. Which is important when one is away from home and hoping for reading as excellent as one’s surroundings—the kind of thing you mustn’t get wrong. When our mini-break was over, I could underline its success by the fact that I’d managed to nearly get a whole book read, and I am glad that it was this one.
Kate Cayley is a playwright, poet, prize-winning YA author, and now, with How You Were Born, recipient of the Trillium Book Award. The day the book took the prize, I received my copy in the mail from All Lit Up, which technically means that I liked this book before it was so extraordinary lauded (and therefore am cool and a tastemaker), but one might have expected as much from Cayley. Though it’s worth noting that How You Were Born beat out novels by Margaret Atwood and Thomas King for the prize. Perhaps they should put that on a sticker and slap it on the cover.
It has been interesting to read these stories, many of which are about Queer family life, sandwiched between Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, which tell of the same. In Cayley’s first story, “Resemblance,” two women and their daughter travel to visit the mother of the girl’s biological father, who is recently deceased. The ending is quiet, ambiguous and uncomfortable as these people consider the weight and meaning of their connections. “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis” is spun from the most marvellous beginning: “My brother Richard was odd. By the time he was twelve my mother yearned for a diagnosis, but he was just odd.” A brother and sister spend their days high up in the backyard birch tree observing their eccentric neighbours, and the sister comes in sight of her own mother’s struggles and powerlessness: “My mother…was more like Richard than she knew.”
In “Stain,” a man attending a wedding weekend meets up with a woman he’d briefly encountered years ago in 2001 at the anti-capitalist protests in Quebec City. In “Midway, Midgets and Giants, Photograph 1914,” a two-feet-seven-inch tall circus performer reads of the legendary romance between Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, their wedding presided over by PT Barnum, and scans the crowds looking for her true love in the stands. And then a different turn altogether with “Fetch,” in which a man who supposes that his double has moved in next door, a harbinger of death, and responds as rationally as you might expect. “Acrobat” has a similar tone to “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis”, about a lonely girl who is new in town and partakes in an informal acrobatic circus, and learns something fundamental truth about herself in the story’s final moment.
In “Long Term Care,” things get complicated when an elderly father is moved into an assisted living unit, and his daughter fears that he is imagining himself back in Buchenwald, where he was traumatized in his youth. The blind protagonist of “Blind Poet” has a fleeting affair with an artist, the story tied up on classical allusion. “Young Hennerly” is a story and also the title of a creepy song sung to a folklorist collecting stories of residents of the mountains of West Virginia who finds the borders between life and myth begin to blur. In the Alice Munrovian “Boys,” a man finds himself responsible for his cousin who has always been a bit different, and whose own behaviour with young boys skirts the line between innocent and otherwise. And in the title story, a woman tells her child, about the sides and allegiances of motherhood, and of daring the “gamble” of bringing a child into the world.
June 24, 2015
In this book about a teenage girl growing up in the ’50s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I was kind of hoping for the sequel to Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, which Judy Blume has called her most autobiographical work and which has dark and deep undertones more so than even a book like Tiger Eyes. In some ways though In the Unlikely Event feels less deep than Sally, though it deals with a situation particular and tragic. In 1951 and 1952, three planes crashed in three months in Elizabeth, something Blume herself lived through and reimagines in her new novel, her first for adults since Summer Sisters. The novel is told from a slew of perspectives, some of them just a few paragraphs long each, and also in fictional newspaper accounts. The centre of the book is the character Miri who is just 15 and embarking upon her first romance when she and those around her bear witness to the destruction and devastation of the crashing planes. PTSD wasn’t something anybody imagined at the time, and so Miri and her friends and family (and other characters on the periphery of their lives) are urged to just get on with things, their trauma manifesting in various ways. And while Blume attempts an allegory in which the plane crashes stand in for the more recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, more than anything the novel is a soap opera. The tragedies cast characters’ lives in new lights and they’re driven to impulsive acts outside their usual frames of experiences, which makes for interesting reading for the most part, if it dwells on junior high school drama a bit too much (as well as a curious bit in which a character is possessed by the spirit of a dancer who died in the first crash). If you’re complaining about too much junior high drama though, perhaps you shouldn’t be reading Judy Blume, which is fair enough, but then the adult story-lines were so interesting and (SPOILERS!) what happened on page 320 had me gasping in horror—more of that please! More than anything though, a new book by Judy Blume is an event, and I’m glad to have been part of it. We’re now upon the season such books were made for after all. But while the novel tied up tidily, it left me a little unsatisfied and I don’t think I’m going to feel better until I’ve gone back and read Sally again.
June 22, 2015
Steve Burrows’ first Birder Murder Mystery, A Siege of Bitterns, was one of my favourite reads of 2014, a smart and absorbing novel that introduced the enigmatic Chief Inspector Dominic Jejeune, reluctant police superstar, avid birder and expat Canadian on the Norfolk coast. I loved the premise, was drawn in by the character, and admired the intelligence and fun of Burrows’ writing—and that the mystery’s solution hung on a point of grammar. So ever since I’ve been looking forward to the second book in series, A Pitying of Doves.
And I was not disappointed. Book two finds more bird-related murder and mayhem in Norfolk (and really, how can Jejeune ever doubt that he’s where he’s meant to be, a place with not one but two murders in which his ornithological background is useful). The book begins with a rather gruesome scene at a bird sanctuary where a researcher is found dead beside the body of a Mexican consular official. The powers that be are eager to have the diplomat found innocent of all wrongdoing in the interesting of international relations, but nothing is that simple. Is the case connected to two missing Turtle Doves from a local private aviary whose Mexican owner mysteriously vanished years ago? And what about the bird carver whom neither Jejeune nor his girlfriend Lindy trust completely? Meanwhile, Jejeune’s partner, Danny Maik, is obvious to love right in front of him, and he’s grappling with his own problems. With twists, turns, and plenty of peril (including a dramatic scene on a cliff face), Burrows plots his way to the finish and Jejeune triumphs again. But does the triumph even matter to him? And what’s with the apprehension by officials in St. Lucia? What ghosts are our birding hero still running from?
Burrows is beginning to fill out Jejeune’s backstory, which was tantalizingly alluded to in A Siege of Bitterns. I feel as though this is a series just begging for a prequel. And while the novel requires a certain suspension of belief—a few twists were the result of very convenient coincidences, and does it really seem possible that everything relates back to birding—it was a fun, smart and satisfying read just like its predecessor. Its a novel with a sense of humour too—the birding motif is tongue-in-cheek when it needs to be. But with enough depth and intrigue via great characterization that the story is as meaningful as it is a pleasure.
June 14, 2015
“‘This is what I want,’ he heard a woman saying. ‘That’s what I want.’ She seemed to be addressing the world at large. When he came closer, he saw she was pointing at a forty-inch flat screen TV in the store window.” –from “Caffe Italia”
Nothing is ever quite what it seems in Rachel Wyatt’s new short story collection, Street Symphony. Everybody has a secret life, or else a secret grudge. Bodies fall from rooftops on quiet streets, mothers monitor their adult sons’ email, the woman furtively taking notes at the bar has her own agenda, and then there’s the character walking around town holding a sign asking, “Are you content to be nothing?” Disturbing the quiet of leafy streets has been what Wyatt’s been up to for the last forty years, with novels like The Rosedale Hoax (1977), a satiric comedy set in Toronto’s tony neighbourhood. In Street Symphony, Wyatt’s voice and point of view are just as strong and distinctive.
What that point of view is exactly depends on where one is standing. Or sitting, in the case of the story, “Falling Woman,” in which a character happens to choose a different seat in her living room in which to drink her coffee and read her paper one morning, and thereby observes somebody falling out of the sky. Her usual chair, and she would have missed it. And usual chairs populate the “Caffe Italia” story, which is a microcosm of the collections, in which early morning regulars in a coffee shop tell themselves stories of other people’s lives—and of their own. These are stories about the infinite number of ways that we brush up against each other, but how much we get wrong in the process of knowing. How we are each of us alone, connected only to each other, to paraphrase a line from Marina Endicott’s Close to Hugh, which makes an interesting complementary read to this one. How Wyatt’s characters see the world and each other depends on which direction each one is facing, and perhaps whether they’ve got their curtains closed or open, and all manner of other details.
Wyatt is a tricky writer, her narratives rushing forward and trusting their reader to keep up and to follow the twists and turns of plot and dialogue. Characters aren’t introduced but just appear in full force and action, and we’re to put the pieces together to find out who they are just as those characters discern the lives of the people they encounter in their own circles. Some of these stories will invite a reread upon finishing, and even then, not all the details will be clear. Mysteries remain, secrets kept, puzzles unresolved. Wyatt uses elements of intrigue as she did in her 2012 novel Suspicion, not always to full effect here, but still they keep the stories interesting. There are 17 in this collection and they don’t blend together, but have a cumulative force, building like into symphony of the title, layers of city life. And a few satirical suburban cul-de-sac stories reminded me of Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, so we’re not just talking about the downtown core.
June 7, 2015
I’m not quite sure what to do with The Green Road, by Anne Enright. Enright, recently appointed Ireland’s first Fiction Laureate, a literary force whose new books are events, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2007’s The Gathering. I read The Gathering after the award, I think, and I remember finding it very difficult, and no longer remember anything about it. Her following novel, The Forgotten Waltz, was more my speed, more of a straightforward narrative, though critics found it underwhelming. I loved her memoir, Making Babies, which I’ve read at least twice, a book that displays her wry, slightly-off perspective, and her mastery of language. Oh, how Enright can line up words in a sentence, evoke a simile: the effect of “He did have sex with a guy on Saturday night but coming made him feel like he was reaching for something that melted in his hands.” (from The Green Road). Last winter I read her second novel, What Are You Like? from 2000, and found myself spellbound but frustrated by the fragmentation. Sometimes I feel as though fragments emerge from an author who couldn’t quite be bothered to write a “real” book, but then the pieces all came together at the end and I was dazzled all the same.
I wasn’t so dazzled by The Green Road, which is also a novel in pieces, or at least I wasn’t dazzled by how the pieces finally came together because they didn’t really. But then the pieces themselves were really stunning, and it’s remarkable too how Enright portrays 25 years of a family’s history through a few chosen episodes most of which don’t even show characters interacting with other family members. We begin with Hanna, the youngest daughter in 1980, witnessing her formidable mother’s histrionics at her eldest brother’s decision to join the priesthood. Next it’s 1991 in New York City, and the brother has foregone religion for an vibrant life in the city’s gay scene against the backdrop of AIDS. 1997 and sister Constance is awaiting confirmation of whether or not the lump in her breast is cancerous, the entire section enacted in the events of a single morning. Then 2002 and brother Emmet is doing international development work in Mali, negotiating his own perilous domestic arrangement with a fellow aid worker. And finally, their mother, Rosaleen, sitting down to her Christmas Cards in 2005 and contemplating her children so far dispersed emotionally and by geography. She’s selling the house, she decides, a surprising decree that brings everyone home for the first time in years.
Each of these pieces stand alone as a masterful short story. Stylistically innovative too—in particular the first-person plural narration of Dan’s section. They are challenging, stories that begin in the middle of the action, or afterwards, taking a long time to circle back around to it, demanding much of their reader’s attention. If you try to skim prose like this, you’re going to get lost. They also serve well as a shorthand of the family’s place in time through small details, even if the character’s family life is at the far periphery of their experience. And that the family life is at the far periphery of experience is kind of the point of the entire book, their demanding mother both the cause of and reacting to the fact that her offspring are so far-flung. So what happens when the fractured family all return again under one roof?
There is drinking, of course. Enright has done a fantastic job rendering the postpartum experiences of struggling actress Hanna whose been hiding booze in her juice, and is dangerously unstable. Everyone gets sloshed, except put-upon Constance who magics up Christmas dinner (but forgets to buy the coffee) and then after the inevitable explosion when their mother takes off, no one is sober enough to go driving and look for her. And here the novel takes a dramatic turn, a bit Hagar Shipley/Our Woman from Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, the embittered and deranged mother figure getting lost in the landscape, falling off the edge of things. (The kind of woman who thunders around screaming, “Don’t mind me!” at the night sky.)
It is this difficult woman who is the book’s compelling centre, but never quite comes into focus. This is also partly the point—the characters contemplate the impossibility of really describing one’s mother. She is just your mother—a primal knowledge, but also one beyond understanding. The hole at the centre of the novel gets at this contradiction, but it’s also a weakness of the book, I think. And while it’s emblematic that the pieces of the narrative fail to culminate into anything approaching resolution, the reader is still looking for more of a pay-off.
Though it’s there if you look for it. In Enright’s exquisite prose, the illumination of perfect moments throughout the text (even if they are more like beads on a string than links on a chain), in what Lisa Moore describes as Enright’s “distinctive voice. Captivating, wry, tart, wickedly funny – ineffable, ineluctable.” So in the end, I do know what to do with Anne Enright, which is just to read her, read everything, and then go back and read The Gathering again.