Abelard and Hell-Louise
- Barbara Gowdy (Author)
The Romantic. Harper Flamingo (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Marta Dvorak
Recipient of the Marian Engel Award, twice a finalist for the Giller Prize and Governor- General’s Award (for The White Bone and Mister Sandman), Barbara Gowdy has fasci- nated the public since the publication of her 1992 short story “We So Seldom Look on Love,” the inspiration for Kissed, Lynn Stopkewich’s feature film on necrophilia. Gowdy’s phantasmagoric writing has operated within a powerful neogothic current on the contemporary artistic scene, interrogating gender roles and the relationship between the body and the subject. The Romantic, a story related by Louise, an ostensibly normal middle-class, suburban young woman, moves away from the previous modes of the quietly sinister or fantastic. Yet this story of love and longing stages, censures or celebrates the quirks, foibles, strengths and frailties of humankind in all their bizarre and splendid variety, embodied by a cast of characters endowed with rather Dickensian identifying tags. A for- mer beauty queen, unbeatable at charades, showers her daughter with outfits in inverse proportion to the love she has to offer. A father pores over Roget’s Thesaurus and speaks in strings of synonyms. A near-mute house-keeper communicates through hisses, twitches and flutters, for whom anything yellow is good luck. The German wife next door, with her malapropisms and loud clothes and voice, walks the streets at night calling her son. The boy, Abel, wise beyond his years, initiates the child Louise into the beautiful intricacies of bats and Bach.
One finds resonances with other contemporary fiction, notably Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Alice Munro’s “Before the Change” or “Comfort,”or Carol Shields’s Unless. There is the woman who leaves her husband and child without warning, defrosting the refrigerator one day and putting a goodbye note on it the next. There is the beautiful precision of a brilliant boy’s taxonomical pursuit of understanding, against a back- of bullying, ravines and churches. There is the female narrator’s confession, aligning sequences from different spaces and times into a contrapuntal pattern alternating episodes from childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The retrospective mode allows a layering of hindsights and a depth of perception that generates meaning by superimposing subsequent awareness onto earlier experience.
When the wordplay-mad father dubs the inseparable children Abelard and Hell-Louise, a parallel is clearly suggested with the story of Abélard and Héloïse—the medieval philosopher/logician and the pupil he seduced. On an overt level, the doomed love affair of the French theologian and abbess has an anticipatory function, foreshadowing the outcome of Louise’s passion. On a second, subtler level, the intertext alluding to the Scholastic consolidates the metaphysical dimension of the novel: the characters’ investigation of ethics, truth, and being itself. In one of the many fine meditative passages of disarming simplicity, Abel addresses the relationship between the apprehension of things and the naming process. He celebrates the fact that everything is itself: “‘The pigeons,’ he says. ‘They’re not trees or cats or measuring cups. They’re pigeons . . . They aren’t right or wrong or important or unimportant or anyone’s name for them. Out of oblivion came these nameless things.’” And back to oblivion is where Abel apparently wants to go. The sensitive, gifted young man makes fatal use of alcohol to attain the pure awareness that allows life “to recognize itself as a fleeting pulse of oblivion.”
Like Shields’s Unless, the novel is a fresh, even playful, representation of age-old preoccupations. The writing is stunningly fine. The characters are engaging; the arresting dialogues ring true, and the self-reflexive narrative voice, intelligent and authentic, is never heavy-handed, but resorts superbly to diverse modes of indirection such as irony, metaphor, echo, lexical scrambling, objective correlatives, or the rhetoric of denial or of the unsaid. Up to the last part of the novel, which unfortunately slides into mechanical sequences and inversions, the language is exhilarating, rhythmically mixing the concrete and the abstract, the colloquial and the poetic, conceptualisation and rock-bottom common sense. “‘Don’t worry,’ he’d say, when panic was the only sane response. ‘Don’t get yourself down,’ when you were scraping your soul off the pavement. Right up until the last days of his life he tried to assure me that we’d both be okay. ‘You won’t be,’ I said. ‘A dead person is not okay.’” And we understand at the end of the closing chapter, which is telescoped with the opening one, that Louise will never forget, but will be okay.
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MLA: Dvorak, Marta. Abelard and Hell-Louise. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 128 - 129)
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