by David MacFarlane,
Fits Like A Rubber Dress
by Roxane Ward
A Fine Daughter
by Catherine Simm
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|The Butterflies Are The Book’S Grace
by Diana Brebner
When David Macfarlane’s family saga, The Danger Tree, was first published in 1991, I spent a small fortune on copies for family and friends, and returned several times to Ottawa’s memorable Food for Thought bookstore to replace my constantly disappearing personal copy. When his first novel, Giller-nominated Summer Gone (Knopf Canada, 266 pages, $32.95 cloth, ISBN: 0676971903), came to me this past August, I set all tasks aside and read the book in one sitting. Wise reader, I do not recommend this course. Better to sip this book, as Bay Newling, Macfarlane’s central character, sips Remy Martin from a pale yellow plastic teacup while talking to his son, Caz, by a small, smoky campfire on an ill-fated canoe trip: slowly, and with inevitable melancholy.
Macfarlane’s writing embodies a classic New York style: his elegant lines are simple, composed trajectories. Sentences are haunted by ghosts of literature: a funeral director who “padded forward on little funeral-director feet” echoes Sandburg’s fog that came in. There are only a few odd moments. Is the sky “wind-rowed”, pastorally windrowed or is that “cloud-rowed”? The Hopkinesque quality seems slightly absurd. Perhaps I haven’t an inkling of sensibility, but I do think some mannerisms are stretched a fair ways beyond their natural life expectancy.
The bone structure of the book (excerpts from The Outdoorsman’s Guide and a preoccupation with canoeing as metaphysics) shimmers through a taut skin of words like the ribs of an old canoe. The canoeist is rakishly poised between past and future, holding the present course in newly crowded cottage country only through skilled manoeuvring of the paddle’s blade. What happened and what happens seem less important than the construction of a present out of memory and prophecy, and that construction can be a thing of beauty: “The wild irises in the midsummer heat. The cardinal flowers bloomed in the chill, mist-drifting mornings. The dragonflies were everywhere, and then, before the monarchs appeared, the dragonflies were gone.”
Macfarlane has added two other layers to his work with the recurring emblem of a poem by Octavio Paz, “Wind and water and stone” and a Nabokovian sensuality and fragile perversion. He begins the book with an epigraph from Nabokov’s autobiographical Speak, Memory about ecstasy and the vacuum behind ecstasy into which love rushes. Fine and dandy, but one discovers that the quotation refers to Nabokov’s hobby of butterfly collecting, and the net cast by the novel is intended for a different species.
Better to have left the introduction of Nabokov to Bay Newling, who quotes a few words from Lolita at his parents’ funeral. The words are from the passage where Nabokov’s self-proclaimed pervert, Humbert Humbert, remembers his mother’s death with the parenthetical phrase, “(picnic, lightning)”. This quote is echoed, perhaps a trifle self-consciously, throughout the book, but especially at one critical moment, “(Egg, sperm)”, at which point I felt I had been thwacked on the head with a paddle. If readers have survived so long into the book without an explanation as to the identity of the narrator, I’m sure they are quite willing to wait for the quiet moment, just a little farther along, when, with Macfarlane’s elliptical spareness of line, all is confirmed.
Only a book of great richness and style could sustain such flaws and still live and breathe with its wonders undiminished. Despite its faults, peculiarities, and a reach bravely beyond its grasp—or perhaps because of these—Macfarlane’s book is to be read, reread, pondered, discussed, and admired. We read it with the same homesickness Bay feels as a boy at summer camp: “He was homesick; he was in the most beautiful place he knew. Sadness and beauty. He had never, in his life, separated the two.”
Sadness and beauty are not the immediate concerns of Indigo Blackwell, the self-absorbed heroine of Roxane Ward’s Fits Like a Rubber Dress (Simon & Pierre, 304 pages, $18.99 paper, ISBN: 0889242844). You have to wonder if there is some humble school of writing teaching new Canadian novelists to begin their novels with a quote from another author. This book begins with an epigraph from Paul Eluard: “La terre est bleue comme une orange”. A handy translation is provided. Then the immortal opening lines: “Indigo thought of urine as she poured samples of yellow soda into small white paper cups. The label boasted ONE PERCENT REAL FRUIT JUICE. Ninety-eight percent gnat pee and a dash of beetle spit, she thought, smiling for the first time since she pulled herself out of bed wondering what kind of God would make her work on a Sunday morning.”
Roxane Ward calls her characters “urban butterflies”. Indigo is not happy with her life. She is like her downtown Toronto Victorian house: fashionable, cluttered, and semi-detached. She is married to Sam, an obnoxious, wannabe novelist who may or may not have a gay lover. She works in PR promoting things she despises. She longs for a glamourous, artistic life. Her best friend, Nicole, MEGA-TV reporter, is ambitious and gorgeous. Her other best friend, Tim, is gorgeous and totally without ambition. These bright fish in the shallow end of the pond exchange smart-alecky word bubbles.
The universe unfolds as it should. Indigo quits her job, goes to film school, leaves her husband, takes up with a sadistic, cocaine-enhanced, immature sculptor, swallows Ecstasy, turns thirty. Tim dies in a bike accident. Never-say-baby Nicole gets pregnant. Wow. What a story. This is a world of higher “plains” and expensive “Porches”. The latter makes me think of popular advice about buying yachts: if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. And so it is with cars: if you don’t know how to spell Porsche, you can’t afford to have one in your novel.
Catherine Simmons Niven also begins her novel, A Fine Daughter (Red Deer Press, 328 pages, $16.95 paper, ISBN: 0889951926), with a quotation. It is a rather long description called “The Change to a Butterfly” from a book published in 1917, Butterflies Worth Knowing, by Clarence Weed. There is nothing pretentious or esoteric in her choice, and it sets the tone beautifully for her opening lines:
What begins as a question, as a distant roiling blister where two train rails converge and appear soldered together in the heat, turns eventually into the slow-paced, rock-a-bye-baby swagger of a pregnant girl. She walks one step at a time, as deliberate as a train.
Chestnut hair and brown shoes—here she begins, here she ends. Whatever is between is lost to the shimmering prairie heat waves.
This is how Fran McLellan comes to the town of Little Cypress. Despite the machinations of the town doctor, she has a conscious birth and does not give up the baby, Cora, for adoption. In an era of the “twilight sleep” of anaesthetized births, Fran is an anomaly to women such as Winnie Macrae: “Still, Winnie wonders, pausing now to lift the heel of her right foot and to straighten her hose, what was it like to labor, to give birth? And although she would like to deny it, Winnie knows that she, like most women in town, is awed by Fran, who birthed her baby and knew it.”
Fran does not leave town, but stays and lives above Gorkey’s store where she has found work. She lives her life fully awake in a town of sleepwalkers. The men are stoic and inarticulate. The women are encouraged by the domineering Dr. Johnson to model themselves after Winnie, who memorizes articles from Woman’s Home Companion on how to be a perfect housewife.
But sterile perfection is not to be had in Little Cypress, where there are shameful secrets, hidden dreams, and buried hurts. Fran and Cora are the catalysts who bring the town to the brink of magic, a mysterious wind, a miraculous migration of monarch butterflies, and the opening flower of joy, of forgiveness, of tenderness. Niven creates a cast of memorable characters who, while they speak in a familiar idiom, have voices that ring with the quality of fable. A Fine Daughter resonates with unquestionable wisdom and the “orange-sherbet humming” of thousands of Monarch butterflies in migration.