Confronting the Past
Reviewed by Doris Wolf
It is at once difficult and not very difficult to sum up the content of Suzette Mayr’s second novel, The Widows. On the one hand, the novel has a clear and memorable focus: three elderly German immigrant women, Hannelore, Clotilde, and Frau Schnadelhuber, take a trip over Niagara Falls in a bright orange space age barrel with the help of Hannelore’s granddaughter, Cleopatra Maria. All of its details and events touch on the motivations of these characters for their participation in this courageous and (many would claim) fool-hardy act. Yet the novel explores so many pertinent issues of our contemporary moment that it becomes quite hard to recount its contents in any succinct way. Not only does Mayr explore issues such as sexual desire (both lesbian and heterosexual), ageism, and racism, but she does so in a novel that successfully and provocatively crosses a number of generic boundaries, including the immigrant narrative, historical fiction, and the feminist road narrative.
Perhaps the central issue addressed in The Widows is one that Mayr began to explore with her first novel, Moon Honey (1995), also published by Ne West Press, as part of its Nunatak Fictions new author series. In Moon Honey, the author explores race relations in Alberta through her protagonist Carmen, a young white girl who magically transforms into a black girl part way through the book. In The Widows, race is examined through Cleopatra Maria, a young woman of uncertain ancestry who comes to internalize the overt racism of her white paternal grandmother, Hannelore Schmitt. Immigrating to Canada from Germany when she is in her sixties, Hannelore manages to drive a wedge between Cleopatra Maria and her mother, Rosario, whom Hannelore disparagingly describes at one point as "half mongrel." By the time Cleopatra Maria is a teenager, she rejects both her mother and her racial background due in part to her surroundings, the white suburbs of Edmonton, Alberta, but in larger part to her Oma’s influence. Hannelore, we quickly learn, is a generally narrow minded and bigoted person, with clear racist, to say nothing of homophobic, tendencies.
Through Hannelore and her relationship with her granddaughter, Mayr creates much of the comedy of her novel as well as an intensely complex and often uncomfortable portrayal of immigration to Canada and the reciprocal process of Old/New World influence. Growing up with German immigrant parents, I found it easy to recognize and laugh at many of Hannelore’s stereotypically German mannerisms and attitudes the ardent love of good hearty German food, poking fun at Bavarians, the obsession with order and cleanliness. Hannelore’s preoccupation with her past in Germany also reminded me of the nostalgic longing for the homeland that was part of the immigrant experience of my parents and their community of German friends. Yet the past in which Hannelore is so deeply mired is one that evokes the racism and homophobia of Nazi Germany, and this past continues to intrude on the present in uneasy ways. Much of the novel’s narrative impulse concerns Hannelore’s attempts to let go of the propaganda of the Nazi era as she negotiates a new life in Canada. Cleopatra Maria, in turn, has to learn how to resist her Oma’s teachings, reconnect with her mother, and embrace her mixed race background.
Mayr’s novel, engagingly written, brings all its various strands together in an unforgettable and happy conclusion. The three elderly women survive their trip over Niagara Falls, but more than that, they begin to live new and more satisfying lives afterwards. With its postmodern and deconstructive tendencies and humour, Mayr’s work fits within the tradition of prairie writing forged by writers such as Robert Kroetsch and Aritha van Herk. With its emphasis on race, it can also be located in the next generation of prairie writing which includes authors such as Hiromi Goto, Joan Crate, and Yasmin Ladha.
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MLA: Wolf, Doris. Confronting the Past. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 160 - 161)
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