- Karen McLaughlin (Author)
From This Distance. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lola Lemire Tostevin (Author)
The Other Sister. Inanna (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Beth Powning (Author)
The Sea Captain's Wife. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson
At first glance, these novels might seem to bear no similarity to one another: one deals with sea travel in the mid-nineteenth century, another with an across-country road trip between a woman and her late mother-in-law, and the third a retrospective account of one woman’s life. But appearances can often be deceiving. The three novels all explore the gender expectations imposed upon women and the ways in which they each attempt to challenge them.
In The Sea Captain’s Wife, Powning’s sixth book, Azuba Galloway Bradstock is born and raised in New Brunswick, with a view of the sea her constant companion. This view reinforces Azuba’s desire to see more of the world than her hometown, and once she marries Captain Nathaniel Bradstock, she believes this desire might become a reality. But Azuba is bound by her times, and instead of travelling with Nathaniel, she finds herself left behind with a small child. This traditional role is not what Azuba had imagined for herself, and her frustrations are only tempered by a new friendship with the local reverend. While the friendship is chaste, there is an underlying current of potential, and here the novel treads into the typical historical romance, offering the love triangle as primary concern for Azuba; but Powning instead uses the friendship as a catalyst for change in the shape and scope of Azuba’s life. It is this friendship, and an afternoon walk hijacked by stormy weather, that finally makes Nathaniel decide to take Azuba and their daughter, Carrie, to sea on Traveller.
While Nathaniel is not happy at the idea of taking a wife and child to sea, Azuba is ecstatic, and tells Nathaniel she is excited about his decision. “I have no choice,” Nathaniel replies. “Therefore, it is your choice. Remember that.” This statement offers an ominous tone, suggesting the real dangers of life at sea.
From here, Powning takes the Bradstock family on an incredible journey on Traveller. We are witness to sea storms, foreign locales, dire conditions on board; a memorable passage reveals a starving hen attacking the bone buttons on Carrie’s dress, seeking out much-needed calcium and illuminating the desperation attending provisions at sea.
Powning is an accomplished author and thorough researcher; the book is full of both large and small details of sea travel, nineteenth-century protocol, and the geography of foreign landscapes. And while these details certainly add texture and realism, I often found myself overwhelmed by them. The research detracted from the very human characters Powning had created, and I found myself wishing to keep the focus on them and their complex interactions rather than the technical details of sailing.
The novel also traces, in part, the result of new technology on Traveller, Nathaniel, and other sea captains; we see Traveller compared and reduced in relation to the new metal-clad ships, and in Nathaniel’s response witness his understanding that the life he has loved is quickly vanishing. This commentary on the effect of technology on society is apt and well-drawn. By the end of the novel, though, even this change seemed inevitable, and I wished for more surprises along the way in Azuba’s journey.
Journeys—from road trips to more exotic travel—are time-honoured devices used to reveal personal transformations within characters, and Karen McLaughlin also explores a journey, though it is much more an interior one. She uses physical travel as a metaphor for another kind of journey, and it effectively allows for her to focus on both Robyn’s interior life and the symbolism of the landscape without creating a static narrative. Robyn herself says, “I’m driving a metaphor, Muriel. Imagine that.”
From This Distance traces the protagonist’s trip westward across Canada, driving the vehicle inherited from her late mother-in-law, Muriel. From Muriel’s burial site near the Bay of Fundy back to her hometown of Calgary, Robyn’s memories and the changing Canadian landscape are implicitly linked. Robyn has always believed that Muriel did not approve of her, and she takes advantage of the long trip to converse with Muriel, as if she is with her in the car; in this way, Robyn can reveal secrets that have never before been spoken aloud, saying things to Muriel that she never would have when she was alive. McLaughlin cleverly avoids the traditional pitfalls of the potentially clichéd family secret by using this narrative structure; in this way she directly discusses that which in another novel would be made coy and shadowy until the close of the story.
McLaughlin’s ability to aptly detail the impulses, secret longings, fears, and hopes of an ordinary woman is the strength of the novel; the voice is clear and honest, and feels authentic to the characters and their experiences. Her descriptions and observations are fresh and specific, giving the reader pause to consider not only what we are seeing, but how these observations in turn shape our perceptions of the character. Robyn laments, “I thought I’d weigh much less with you dead, Muriel,” and with this, we not only see the depth of Robyn’s pain, but also her new, wry understanding of it. At times, however, this style of narrative felt as though I was spying on Robyn at her most intimate, and this intimacy was slightly off-putting.
The Canadian landscape, as well, plays an important role in the novel, from the Maritimes, to suburban Toronto, Regina, Calgary, and Northern BC; here we see not only the beauty and brutality of the country, but also the impact of the natural world on the people who inhabit it; Robyn becomes a kind of manifestation of the landscape, allowing the facets of her personality to unfold throughout the novel.
Geography as metaphor is also at work in Lola Lemire Tostevin’s new novel, The Other Sister. Through the eyes of Julia, the novel’s ninety-seven-year-old protagonist, we see Toronto during wartime, revealing the personal and communal responses to war and social privilege. Julia is moving to a retirement home, and as a gift, her daughter, Rachel, and granddaughter, Thea, give her a laptop and ask her to record her memories. It’s a clever device to allow Julia to wade into the past, detailing her own experiences as well as those of her twin sister, Jane. The girls were from a wealthy family, and this sets them apart and allows them to make choices unusual for women of the time; Julia, in fact, turns down a marriage proposal from an eligible bachelor and instead suggests he marry her sister. It is this challenging of gender expectation that sets Julia apart from other characters in the novel, but the descriptions of her as feisty and forward-thinking no longer feel fresh; I would have rather seen this expressed in a new way, showing Julia struggling with how to reject expectations of her as a woman in the 1940s.
Paired with Julia’s story is that of Lena Kohn, a Mengele twin and Holocaust survivor that Julia meets in the retirement home. Lena lost her sister at Auschwitz, and through this foil to her own story, Julia is forced to reconcile her wartime experiences with Lena’s, and to admit her ignorance of the real horrors of war. This forced reflection reveals both Julia’s empathy as well as the prejudices she had not realized lingered below the surface.
The Other Sister, as well, deals with generational issues between Julia, Rachel, and Thea; each woman represents a different time and gender expectation, and they each rail against obligation and duty, trying to find their own voices and their own paths. In many ways, the novel is about identity, and Tostevin’s range of characters allows for this theme to be fully and exquisitely explored; most specifically, the lines between Julia and Jane’s lives are blurred, making their search for distinction and separateness all the more apparent.
Tostevin deftly handles not only the sweeping historical content, but also a strong cast of characters, including Julia and Jane, Lena and her twin sister Lili, Rachel and Thea, and Daniel Browne, another member of the retirement home who, like Julia, has not let age dictate his life. Tostevin creates well-drawn characters, and easily pairs them with historical detail. At the centre of Julia’s story lies a mystery involving both Julia and Jane, and this revelation is the pivot on which the plot spins. These revelations of Julia’s life, though, are problematic; the manner in which they are revealed, sometimes in italicized sections, other times in stiff dialogue, often feel too much like information being fed to readers, rather than a natural unfolding of story. When Julia and Lena are discussing their twin sisters, they say:
Did you tell her about Lili?
No. Only about my younger brother and sister.
What happened to them?
Relatives hid them in a Catholic convent in Budapest. They didn’t go to the camps.
Why do you think we’re lying about having twin sisters, Lena?
I don’t know. To protect them, maybe. They are safer if they don’t exist.
As women who have shared their darkest histories, their dialogue feels contrived, forced in order to simply reveal information rather than to illuminate their personalities and their relationship. In this same way, Tostevin often feels compelled to explain what the reader should be able to interpret from the prose. This over-explaining lends an air of insecurity to the narrative, as if the author is uncertain if her words are, indeed, capturing the mood and tone intended.
Though each of these novels approaches gender issues in decidedly different manners, they all manage to illuminate generational challenges faced by women. It is both inspiring and somewhat depressing to think that women from such varied backgrounds as the nineteenth-century through to the Second World War and present day could still share so much.
- Constructing Masculinities by Gregory Betts
Books reviewed: Back to the War by Frank Davey, Stormy Weather: Foursomes by Stan Dragland, and Hot Poppies by Leon Rooke
- Family Secrets by Gisèle M. Baxter
Books reviewed: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa and Miracleville by Monique Polak
- Les relations intimes by Sandra Hobbs
Books reviewed: Vous devez être heureuse by Katerine Caron, L'angle mort by Jean-François Chassay, and Le cercle parfait by Pascale Quiviger
- La fondation incertaine: uchronie et fantômes de l'histoire by Stéphane Inkel
Books reviewed: Le livre des fondations: Incarnation et enquébecquoisement dans Le ciel de Québec de Jacques Ferron by Jacques Cardinal
- Gothic and Pomo History by Barbara Pell
Books reviewed: The Custodian of Paradise by Wayne Johnston and Consolation by Michael Redhill
MLA: MacPherson, Andrea. Great[er] Expectations. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 161 - 163)
***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.