Beauty and Substance
- Billie Livingston (Author)
Going Down Swinging. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Eden Robinson (Author)
Monkey Beach. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Steven Heighton (Author)
The Shadow Boxer. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jennifer Andrews
All three of these novels are impressive visual objects—the thick textured pages of Going Down Swinging and Monkey Beach, the delicately evocative cover design of The Shadow Boxer depicting misty islands pierced by a single ray of light, the heft of all three novels with words of praise from Al Purdy, Janette Turner Hospital, and Anne Fleming filling the back jackets. Given the increasing price of hardcover books and the serious competition for attention in a Canadian market where first novels have become hot commodities, books have to look good. But more than that, of course, they must have the substance to support that initial presentation. And though everything is, at least aesthetically and economically, in place to ensure the success of Robinson, Heighton, and Livingston, the novels vary dramatically in terms of quality.
Eden Robinson’s Giller-Prize nominated Monkey Beach is the most successful of the three, creating a darkly comic narrative about the life of Lisamarie Hill, a woman who returns to memories of her childhood and adolescence in order to cope with the disappearance of her brother, Jimmy. Robinson, a mixed-blood Haisla and Heiltsuk woman raised near the Haisla village of Kitamaat, has previously published a collection of short stories, Traplines (1996), that won the Winifred Holtby Prize, the Prism International Prize for Short Fiction, and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Like Robinson, the protagonist, Lisamarie—named after Elvis Presley’s daughter—negotiates various worlds while growing up in Kitamaat. She moves between the eclectically traditional ways of her grandmother, Ma-ma-moo, who educates Lisamarie by sharing her passion for television soap operas and teaching her the Haisla language, and the New World activism of her Uncle Mick. A complex web of contradictions, Mick is a survivor of the residential school system, a Native activist who once belonged to the American Indian Movement, a nomad who can never rest, and an Elvis fan whose passion for the "King" knows no bounds. He offers another dimension of experience to Lisamarie by encouraging her to express herself politically. After losing both Mick and Ma-ma-moo, Lisamarie must figure out a way to put her life back together and come to terms with these ghosts from her past.
The novel traces Lisamarie’s journey to discover the fate of her brother, a boat ride that gives her the time and space to recount her story. The narrative is rooted in the beauty and mystery of place, particularly Monkey Beach, a site of family outings and rumoured sasquatch sightings. Robinson’s ability to evoke characters through dialogue and create vivid images of the community, coupled with her awareness of the intricate links between individuals and the land they live on gives the novel a richly layered texture that conveys the significance of Lisamarie’s mixed-blood heritage (Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European). Although the structure of the novel suspends the immediate action of the story, a risky strategy, Robinson’s narrative weaves together multiple plot lines with subtlety and grace, delicately responding to readers’ desire to know the fate of Lisamarie’s brother and the need to recount her past. Moreover, the comic aspects of the novel provide a wonderful counterbalance to the bleakness of Lisamarie’s life, particularly when she ends up living on the streets of East Vancouver. Robinson creates a novel in which humour may lighten the moment but irony ensures that the full weight of tribal histories of colonization and genocide remains a potent force in the text. This is one case in which beauty and substance join together, creating a novel that delivers what it promises.
Steven Heighton’s The Shadow Boxer and Billie Livingston’s Going Down Swinging are admirable but less satisfying first novels. Heighten is the author of six previous books, including short-story and essay collections and two volumes of poetry. His poetic skill is evident throughout the novel, which traces the life of Sevigne Torrins, a poet and boxer, born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, who travels the world in search of himself. Much of the novel revolves around his troubled relationship with his parents, an alcoholic father whose model of self-destruction Sevigne often mimics, and a mother, who leaves her family to take up a life of glamour and wealth in Egypt. In the latter part of the novel, love becomes a primary focus as Sevigne moves to Toronto, meets and then abandons various women, before retreating to the wilderness in this modern version of a Künstlerroman. Here, Heighten offers a parodic rewriting of the conclusion to Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley, taking Sevigne back to his father’s summer cabin on Rye Island for a winter that tests his physical and mental stamina. But instead of dying in isolation, Sevigne survives, and goes from the remote island back to the civilized world where he discovers that he can change the patterns of his parents’ past through his own relationship to his daughter and his writing career.
In The Shadow Boxer, Heighton replicates the formulaic structure of the Künstlerroman rather than giving it his own creative signature. Setting the sequence where Sevigne comes of age as a writer in Toronto, Heighton ends up dropping names of trendy restaurants and nightclubs, and creating clichéd scenes that fail to explain why Sevigne is so troubled once away from his father. Similarly, his repeated references to Sevigne’s literary heroes—among them Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger—often remain underdeveloped, leading to citations that seem forced rather than enlightening. The most effective parts of the novel are set away from urban centres, in Sault Ste. Marie, where characters and their motives take on a realism that is undeniable. The picture painted of his parents provides much needed insight into Sevigne, which reaches its pinnacle with his painful stay alone on Rye Island, a graphically depicted descent into darkness that is tangible and disturbing. Heighton is clearly a gifted writer who needed to take more risks in The Shadow Boxer. This novel could have been more convincing and even impressive if Heighton had challenged the confines of the traditional portrait of an artist and allowed his characters to come alive through poetic language and images rather than relying on the cardboard formulations of the Queen Street crowd.
The least satisfying of the three, Billie Livingston’s Going Down Swinging, tells the story of Eileen Hoffman, a single mother and occasional alcoholic whose love for her children remains solid despite various attempts by Social Services and her ex-husband to take her daughters away. Livingston, a Vancouver writer and poet, combines narrative perspectives by juxtaposing the voices of Eileen, Grace, her young daughter, and Social Services documents that record in flattened bureaucratic prose the multiple break-ups and reconstitutions of the family. While Livingston excels at telling Grace’s story, a heart-wrenching account of a child coming to terms with a world where she lacks control, and effectively conveys Eileen’s complexities, the Social Services documents seem contrived (with their typing errors), and the narrative ultimately does not go anywhere. Certainly Livingston’s ability to make readers care about Eileen, a woman who is unable to provide her children with basic necessities and retreats to drinking at a moment’s notice, is a feat unto itself. Eileen becomes a compelling figure who clearly does love her children despite her faults. But the point of the novel gets lost, and what Livingston leaves us with is a series of darkly comic vignettes of urban poverty, flashes of insight that need a thread to weave them together. The old adage goes, "don’t judge a book by its cover"; in this case, the beauty of the cover of Going Down Swinging sets us up for substance and, in time, Livingston may succeed at delivering both.
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MLA: Andrews, Jennifer. Beauty and Substance. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #168 (Spring 2001), Mostly Drama. (pg. 160 - 162)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.