Damsels in Distress
- Lori Hahnel (Author)
Love Minus Zero. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Mark Blagrave (Author)
Silver Salts. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Timothy Dugdale
Voice. It’s arguably the toughest thing to accomplish in fiction. Even with a great plot and strong characters, if the narrator is unconvincing, well, the book’s in deep doo-doo.
Mark Blagrave’s new book, Silver Salts, has two narrators. One belongs to Lillie Dempster, a nubile little creature orphaned at fourteen by the influenza epidemic that stormed through her hometown, Saint John, New Brunswick. Lillie seeks refuge from this tragedy in the town’s grand movie theatre and she keeps her eyes locked on the silver screen all the way through the Great Depression. Then Ernie Shipman comes to town and discovers that Lillie is a perfect double for Norma Shearer. Eventually she finds herself in Hollywood, in the offices of the fiery Louis B Mayer. Mayer has a special assignment for her: to live Norma Shearer’s life so Norma Shearer can have a real life away from the demands of stardom.
It’s a lovely conceit, at once nostalgic and postmodern. Blagrave nicely matures Lillie from a podunk ingénue to an compliant yet hardly starstruck woman swimming with sharks in a big tank of dirty water. When the real Norma becomes pregnant, Lillie becomes disposable. Sent back to the sticks, she must learn how to live in reality at last. But the Shipman film, long forgotten, is now a liability that must disappear with her.
If Blagrave had allowed Lillie to guide the entire book, it might have been shorter and perhaps a bit more taut. Instead, all too often, he switches out of her voice into third person, using a smart-mouthed commentator to cue the change of perspective, complete with film terminology. This is a distraction that is too clever and too clumsy. Lillie tells a much better story, especially when she’s dealing with bums and moguls, drunk on booze and power, all of who want something for nothing.
If Lillie Dempster is a bit out of focus, Kate Brandt in Love Minus Zero certainly isn’t. You’ve seen her before.
She’s right over there, on the stool at the end of the bar, nursing a pint. Looks like she’s waiting for someone. She used to wear sweats when she was going through a bad patch, but today she has on a sundress. Not bad, really, for pushing fifty. A bit roomy in the hips, the face has seen some heavy weather but she has no air of defeat. If she could have kids, you know she’d be a great mother. If she could find a good man, you know she’d be a great partner.
The bar’s in the basement of a hotel. The winos are still there. She remembers them from when they used to hoot and heckle the punk bands that jammed on the cramped stage at the front of the room. But there’s more than a few hipsters showing up now, suburban kids looking for edge and authenticity. She’s right over there and next week she’ll be gone because it’s time to leave. It’s time to start over, on her own terms in her own place. Her name is Kate and by God, she’s a sweetheart. You’ll think so too after reading Lori Hahnel’s darling if uneven debut novel, “Love Minus Zero.”
Thirty years ago, Kate Brandt used to be a punk rocker. She didn’t just show up for shows, pogoing at the edge of the stage. She rocked out, in an all girl band called Misclairol . . . in spite of herself. “I felt like someone else was playing my guitar, and who was that singing? Through the monitors, our voices were strangers. We’d never heard ourselves so loud before. Every mistake would be magnified, I thought, my stomach churned. Could the sounds we made fill up the place the way the other bands’ did? Did we want them to?”
The young Kate endures all the usual travails of chicklit—the benign neglect of boozy parents, the passive-aggressive (in)attention of young gents trying to find a convincing posture, girlfriends grappling with their own demons and desires. Along the way into middle age she grapples with a writer husband who channels his lack of talent and discipline into shagging co-eds, a succession of miscarriages and desperation romps with shabby boy-toys. Hahnel lards the book with these biographical chestnuts but in spite of chronic bad judgment and bad luck, Kate never sees herself as a victim. Her voice is true even if her aim is not. The book powers through the potholes.
When, after attending an old bandmate’s lesbian wedding where she runs into Niall, a long lost love interest, Kate declares she’s happy, and you believe her. Niall is certainly not the guy who happens to be standing there as Kate runs out of gas. He’s merely a ghost of the past, to be bid a sweet au revoir as Kate sets off on a new course, alone. “I’m better now. I really am better. Weird, eh?”
Not at all, baby.
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MLA: Dugdale, Timothy. Damsels in Distress. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 115 - 116)
***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.