How to Bury the Dead
- Susannah M. Smith (Author)
How the Blessed Live. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Alissa York (Author)
Mercy. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Kristen den Hartog (Author)
The Perpetual Ending. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Michelle Hartley
These novels address the subject of mourning, a process Sam Durrant describes as “learning to bury the dead.” Grieving characters in each of these works turn mourning into an alarmingly narcissistic act of self-reflection and self-indulgence. One novel is ultimately successful in its work of mourning. Of the other two, one preaches and the other allows the corpses to be eaten by wolves.
How the Blessed Live recalls Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in its linking of insurmountable grief, twins, and incest. Why, when grief strikes fraternal twins in these novels, does incest ensue? Smith’s novel engages not only with incest as a narcissistic coupling between twins, but also the narcissistic grief of their father, Daniel, for his wife Wren, who dies giving birth to the twins. Smith structures the novel around Daniel’s continuing letters to his wife, from her death in 1971 to his in 1989. His loss remains fresh; his letters are a dirge to the adage that true love never dies, even when its object is deceased. His son Levi’s art mirrors this preoccupation. He creates papier mâché sarcophagi, “his collection of queens,” to evoke the Ancient Egyptian rituals of burying the dead, with their fragmenting of the body, to help reassemble the living: “A phrase jangles through his mind, something from his notebook: In order to assemble, one must first disassemble; one must go to pieces.” The novel reflects this fragmentation, giving fragments from letters, notebooks, and lists from all three protagonists: father, daughter, son. Lucy, object of her brother’s obsessive regard, who, pregnant, literally bears the consequences of her and her twin’s shared grief, does not so much go to pieces as whittle away at herself, abandoning family ties and physical needs by moving away and succumbing to anorexia in an attempt to become invisible and “pure.” However, “the last thing the world needs is more invisible women,” as we learn from one of the novel’s many minor characters. While Levi continues in his idolatry, fossilizing women by fetishizing their parts in his art, by novel’s end Lucy buries her dead. She miscarries, and simultaneously loses the burden of her grief for mother, brother, and father. She embraces living – evidenced by the novel’s last lines: “Through the open window, she thinks she can smell a berry pie baking, the sugary filling bubbling, spilling over in the oven. She rubs her stomach. She could use some food”– and turns away from the ghosts that have haunted both her and Levi, unhealthily welding the twins into one being where there should have been two. Smith’s novel consistently evokes poetry, myth, and fairy tale without falling into many of their clichés and allows her heroine (and her readers) a satisfying ending in the process.
Kristen den Hartog’s The Perpetual Ending tells the tale of Jane Ingrams, the remainder of a set of twin sisters. The novel’s cover photograph of a girl standing alone, juxtaposed with its negative image over the spine, illustrates the novel’s central preoccupation: “twinness,” its particular joys and guilts, its central paradox. Are twins really one person? Or is this a fallacy leading to self-indulgence, immaturity, and an inability to form adult relationships? Jane, haunted by the loss of sister Eugenie, also remembers wishing “I was the only child of a man and a woman who were normal.” She goes on “I would not have chosen a name that began with J, which was not even formally accepted into the alphabet until the nineteenth century. For hundreds of years it was simply the consonant form of I, a ghostly twin struggling for its own place.” Jane only struggles for her own place at novel’s end. By contrast, the “ghostly twin” surfaces throughout the text, lending itself, like the use of the weird and wonderful children’s stories embedded within the text, to a reading of the novel too overtly orchestrated by the author.
Mercy is far less delicate in both language and plot than the other two novels. Alissa York builds on the gothic tendencies of Prairie predecessors such as Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese, focusing on the fierceness with which desire can strike the most unlikely candidates. Of the three novels, it is this one that comes closest to and falls farthest from brilliance. The portrayal of characters like Vera, the housekeeper for the town of Mercy’s Catholic church, with her intense, life-long devotion to Father Rock, and her wooing of the tumour with words – “I egged it on... Come on, you little bastard, grow” – that eventually kill her after his death, is beautifully wrought. Love and passion appear to have no remedy except for bizarre deaths, however, and at times the gothic becomes excessive and even ludicrous (think Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale’s “exit pursued by a bear,” with multiple bears) with hangings, wolves, and feral dog attacks: “Lavinia was part of the crowd when they carried [the butcher] out. There was nothing to see, really, just a lump covered over with a sheet. It was the din that made it awful, the relentless baying that arose from inside the shop.... Can she really be crying for a pack of feral dogs, for the sad old man who invited them in?” This novel escapes the work of mourning by allowing many of its characters to wallow in guilt and then die horribly, never facing the consequences of their actions. The second priest, August Day, has a love-child, Mary, who is found by Castor, the town drunk, and raised in the bog that surrounds the town. She is the voice of reason and environmental appreciation, “twin” and opposite to the town’s Mayor, Lavinia, a paragon of small-town hypocrisy. Born on the same night, a night of birth, death, and wolves (who threaten August and presumably consume Mathilda, his lover), Lavinia is blinded by her vision of bureaucratic progress and Mary causes the blind to see by revealing the sins of philandering, fundamentalist preacher Carl Mann to him. Mary links the novel’s two disparate stories and its double time frame – 1948 and 1998 – suggesting the novel is “about” the eponymous town, Mercy, and its need to practice that virtue. The novel has power and moments of its own shining vision, but its excesses too often bring it down to the level of melodrama, if not farce.
- Editing Archives by Jody Mason
Books reviewed: Waste Heritage by Irene Baird and Colin Hill and Dry Water by Jean Horton, Neil Querengesser, and Robert Stead
- Death on the BC Coast by Joel Martineau
Books reviewed: Moonrakers by Beth Hill, Dangerous Waters: Wrecks and Rescues off the BC Coast by Keith Keller, and On Coasts of Eternity: Jack Hodgins' Fictional Universe by J. R. Struthers
- Re/Locating Physicality by Andrea Wasylow Sharman
Books reviewed: Hush by Anne Stone, Jane by Judy MacDonald, Like Minds by Shannon Friesen, and Mouthing the Words by Camilla Gibb
- The Art of Artifice by Andrew Lesk
Books reviewed: Delirium by Douglas Cooper, Beneath that Starry Place by Terry Jordan, and Angel Falls by Tim Wynveen
- Fantasy's Trickster by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: The Kappa Child by Hiromi Goto
MLA: Hartley, Michelle. How to Bury the Dead. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory. (pg. 132 - 133)
***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.