Cities in Flames
- Helen Humphreys (Author)
Coventry. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joan Thomas (Author)
Reading by Lightning. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gaétan Soucy (Author)
The Immaculate Conception. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Denham
The central action of Coventry is the bombing of the English cathedral and industrial city in November of 1940 and its immediate effects—that night and the morning after—on some of its residents. Harriet Marsh is a fire-watcher at the cathedral when the bombs ignite it; she and another fire-watcher, Jeremy, make their way through the burning city toward safety. Maeve, Jeremy’s mother, somewhat further from the centre of town, also has to escape the fires. Though Jeremy does not survive the night, the two women meet and realize that at the beginning of the First World War they shared a brief friendship just as Harriet was seeing her young husband Owen off to war. A passage from 1914 and another from 1919, when Harriet goes to Ypres to find Owen’s grave, interrupt the main story. Harriet cherishes the final letter she had from Owen, and it “stopped her from hating the Germans”—a lesson to be remembered in 1940. In 1962 Harriet comes back to Coventry for the opening of the new cathedral, and just as on the night of the bombing, she sees a swallow swooping about the building, reminiscent of John McCrae’s “lark still bravely singing” over Flanders Fields. The burning city and the pain of loss are vividly evoked, and these subjects are brought into the present century by the comment in the Acknowledgements that the descriptions of the burning city are based not only on accounts from the time, but also on “eyewitness accounts of the bombing of Baghdad.” We have not, it seems, learned very much in the interim.
In The Immaculate Conception, the action begins with a fire leading to many deaths, a fire set by an arsonist in a working-class district of Montreal. The jacket says that the setting is the 1920s, but there are no dates or historical references, and the public hanging of the alleged arsonist in the final pages sounds like something from a much earlier time. In between are several stories of the neighborhood’s residents, many of whom are physically deformed or disabled in some way, and all of whom live in fear of something. Remouald Tremblay is afraid of his wheelchair-bound father Seraphon, who in turn fears his own death. Clementine Clement, a club-footed teacher in the local school, is afraid of her own students and her principal, Father Gandon. The burned icon of the Virgin which haunts the story provides no comfort, and the imminent Feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrating “Mary’s purity”, also offers nothing.
Clementine is infatuated with the hyper-masculine Fire Captain, and they become lovers, but we doubt that their story will have a happy ending. There is not much justice here, and not much love either; Remouald, significantly, dies in another fire in a cabin where he and his father have taken refuge from the winter’s cold: as he dies, “the horror that had encased him in ice for twenty years had melted, and for the first time he breathed without feeling an evil hand, his own hand, crushing his heart.” In any historical setting, we make our own frozen lives, and the fire that might thaw us will also kill us. Soucy’s is the bleakest of the novels, but like the others it offers a plea for a warmer, freer, fuller life.
In Reading by Lightning, Joan Thomas gives us the story of Lily Piper’s growing up on a farm in southern Manitoba in the 1930s. Her father was an immigrant from Lancashire with the Barr colonists; her mother is a fundamentalist Christian who believes in the imminent “Rapture” of the redeemed. At sixteen she is sent back to England on the death of her grandfather, and spends four years with her relatives there. From her adoptive cousin George she learns something of a scientific approach to life, an alternative to her mother’s version. She and George seem to be meant to be lovers, but neither can make the first move, and she loses George to the Second World War when conscription claims him and he is lost at sea. Returning to Manitoba when her father dies, she finds herself trapped on the farm with her mother until Russell Bates, whom she met on the opening page of the novel, turns up hiding in the barn. He has become a Communist as a result of the Depression, and Communism is now illegal. She conceals him; they become lovers, and she gains the courage to acknowledge him before her mother. Likewise, he decides to stop hiding from the authorities. Both discover that acknowledging their true selves is less terrible than they had feared.
Thomas’s odd title might be a reference to Coleridge’s remark that watching a performance by actor Edmund Kean was “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning,” except that nothing in the novel is explained by the reference. Rather, the title seems to refer to Lily’s sense that she can have only momentary glimpses of the meaning of her life. The final lightning-charged scene, the closest she gets to understanding, makes her “glad to be abandoned to this world” and its randomness, rather than being raptured up into heaven by her mother’s purposeful God.
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- Partners in Crime by Aritha van Herk
Books reviewed: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
- Carrefours discursifs by Carlo Lavoie
Books reviewed: Le roman québécois et ses (inter)discours by Jósef Kwaterko and Les ruelles de Caresso by Jacques Savoie
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Books reviewed: 19 Knives by Mark Anthony Jarman, The Fall of Gravity by Leon Rooke, and The Pornographer's Poem by Michael Turner
MLA: Denham, Paul. Cities in Flames. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #204 (Spring 2010), 50th Anniversary Interventions. (pg. 181 - 182)
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