It appears this may be the year of the cathartic first novel. In the early pages of the six novels reviewed here we have two mothers and a grandfather dead, a reminiscence of a father's death, an elderly man suffering a massive stroke, and a child taken deathly ill.
On the heels of two highly praised story collections (Object of Your Love, and The Counsel of the Moon) Dorothy Speak gives us The Wife Tree, (Random House Canada, 312 pages, $32.95, ISBN: 0679310665) a novel that might be classified as Southern Ontario Gothic. As the novel opens, an elderly man, William Hazzard, has a massive stroke. The influence of Margaret Laurence is evident as Morgan Hazzard (remember Morag) almost 75, a woman who has suffered enough for five people, tries to cope with a dying husband, a cruel past and a divided family. Later on, there is even a significant stone angel that makes an appearance. Her large family of daughters are scattered across the globe and do not keep in touch, probably with good reason. Her only son, a survivor of his father's physical abuse, lives nearby having become a wild, self-styled evangelist with a gaggle of sons named for Old Testament characters. The only daughter who makes an appearance exhibits symptoms of child abuse. The plot is advanced by Morgan writing fragmented, never mailed letters to her daughters. Some would say many of the events of the novel are overly dramatic, and that the symbolism, particularly of the wife tree, is heavy handed. Morgan does not take any blame for the main tragedies of her life; throughout her marriage she has been a classic enabler of a vicious and misogynistic husband. The time span is nine months, during which Morgan is reborn. She has suffered untold hardships, but as her physical eyesight diminishes, her insights into her own life become clearer. Dorothy Speak is one of our country's finest writers and the story is full of startling revelations and starbursts of language: "It was a sweet, tender evening full of perfume and grief." And there are comic overtones, as when Morgan describes the neighborhood widows: ". . .they're content to be released from cooking three square meals a day, from the smell of a man on their bedsheets, from Hockey Night in Canada, all the while enjoying their husbands' pensions. But if this is so, why are they so bloated in widowhood? They eat and eat, expanding to fill the void created by the death of their spouses." While the novel has a number of faults, it is still a remarkable taleła huge, rugged, rough diamond of a novel, but a diamond all the same.
The memories of a father's death resonate throughout Water Wings, by Kristen den Hartog (Knopf Canada, 225 pages,. $29.95, ISBN: 0676972853), Sisters Vivian and Hannah return to a small Ontario town for the wedding of their rambunctious mother, Darlene. Their father, Mick, was killed in a boating accident when they were children. The story is told from the points of view of the sisters and their cousin, Wren, who has stayed behind and become a single mother. All are puzzled by Darlene's choice for a husband, for after a long succession of unhealthy relationships she has settled on the bland, unexciting shoe store owner, Reg Sinclair. As they prepare for the wedding, the three women each recalls her childhood in long flashbacks. The writing is strong and the plethora of detail makes for interesting characterizations. However when the wedding finally arrives it is an anticlimax and the novel drifts to an end. This is a well-meaning, sweet, and occasionally touching novel, but we know far too little about the three narrators in the present, while some of the memories and flashbacks are banal and repetitive.
In What We All Want, by Michelle Berry (Random House Canada, 239 pages, $32.95, ISBN: 0679310770), the Mounts are like a dysfunctional family from an Anne Tyler novel, only more eccentric and less likable. Matriarch Becha Mount dies and her family convenes. Billy, her alcoholic son who lives nearby, has lost both his jobs, while his huge wife is eating herself to death. Their surly teenaged daughter is pregnant with no father in sight. Thomas, a successful architect hasn't been home for years because (a) he fears flying and (b) he is afraid to acknowledge to his family that he has had a gay lover for fifteen years. Hillary, who stayed home and cared for her mother is what Laura from The Glass Menagerie might have become in later years. The house is filthy, crammed with hundreds of dolls, and Hillary has covered the living room floor with pebbles so she can pretend to walk on a stony beach. Then there is the funeral director, aptly named Dick Mortimer, (remember the Flannery O'Connor character Manley Pointer?) who was Hillary's high school sweetheart, and who shares a very dark secret with her. Hillary decides her mother must be buried in the family back yard and will not be moved on the subject. Jonathan, Thomas's gay black lover shows up and tries unsuccessfully to be a voice of reason. It is established early that Billy is a greedy, disgusting, unlikable drunk, but the author dwells on his actions far too much. There is some poignancy as Hillary and Dick rekindle their romance, but an incongruous slap stick scene involving the surreptitious burial is out of place. A proofreader would have been nice as Dick "itches his scalp," and "Hillary steals herself for the car ride."
Lenny Bruce is Dead, by Jonathan Goldstein, (Coach House Books, 155 pages, $17.95 ISBN: 1552450694) is an experimental novel. We know that because there is almost as much white space as there is type. If it were condensed to normal space it would take up about 70 pages. Josh's mother died when he was a young man. He spends his time in disjointed reminiscences about his childhood and adolescence, his family, and his sexual experiences. It is a boring and frustrating reading experience. The scattered snippets of story are like notes for something more substantial. It reminds me of material I encountered in first year creative writing classes, written mainly by non-readers who lacked the ability to imagine a genuine story, so self-absorbed they were incapable of writing about anything but their own pathetic lives. They would then defend their self-indulgent twaddle as experimental though they had no idea of what a real novel of story was about. Pass this one by.
As Getting to Normal, by Sandra Campbell, (Stoddart, 244 pages, $29.95, ISBN: 0773732799) opens, we read the hospital admission reports concerning seven year-old Alice Redfern, who has been taken desperately and mysteriously ill. Is her family at least partially responsible for the illness? Alice's mother is cold and distant. There are conflicts with the older sister she adores. Both her parents are having affairs. The mother, Frances, makes a prolonged, and perhaps permanent visit to New York City. What brightens Alice's life and facilitates her recovery is a housekeeper, Irma, a refugee from the fighting in Sarajevo, a newlywed who is madly in love with her Canadian husband, Roger. Irma and Roger are affectionate, loving, happy, everything her own family is not. In fact Irma is so sweet she does everything but sing "A Spoonful of Sugar," and levitate with her umbrella. The writing is clear and straightforward and the likable Alice is a multidimensional character. The novel stumbles in the final pages when the family reunites, probably not for long, as Alice's mother still has mental problems and is divorced from the family emotionally. An accident that sends Alice to the hospital a second time is unnecessary and leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied.
Open Arms, by Marina Endicott, (Douglas & McIntyre, 248 pages, $22.95, ISBN: 1550548409) meets one of my major criteria for successful novels: three weeks after reading it I can still recall characters, scenes, and events. Bessie Smith Connolly has lived with her grandparents in Nova Scotia since she was a small child, but now at seventeen, mourning the death of her beloved grandfather, and after a breakup with her boyfriend Daniel, she moves to Saskatoon to be with her sometime band singer mother Isabel, who lives with Katherine, the second wife of Bessie's father Patrick, and a half-sister Irene. The characters take a little sorting out, but it's worth the effort. The father is a well-known poet who cannot sustain a relationship and is now living on an island off the coast of British Columbia with a third wife Doreen, who is expecting twins. The story moves back and forth in time as Bess recalls previous visits to Isabel, Katherine, and Doreen. About to become a mother herself, Bess is searching for her own mother both physically and symbolically, and for a stable life. But her mother, though personable, is chronically preoccupied with her own unstable relationships. Bessie's grandmother arrives from Nova Scotia and they take off in search of the elusive Isabel who has trekked off into the wilderness with one of her many admirers. The climax, which takes place in the badlands of Alberta, is sure to leave a tear in the reader's eye. Endicott is an excellent storyteller and this is a substantial, sweet-natured novel, full of hope and promise. ņ
W. P. Kinsella won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1983, and has published 30-some books. He recently won his first Scrabble Tournament finishing with a 13/2 record in Seattle.