Loss and Longing
- Michael Redhill (Author)
Martin Sloane. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Carol Bruneau (Author)
Purple for Sky. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Helwig (Author)
The Time of Her Life. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Eric Henderson
Women are central in these three novels, each of which focuses on the theme of loss. David Helwig’s The Time of Her Life approaches loss as an existential human condition; Michael Redhill’s Martin Sloane probes the psychological scarring and recovery from loss; of the three novels, however, Carol Bruneau’s Purple for Sky most clearly embraces the liberating possibility of restitution and reconnection. On the surface, The Time of Her Life, Helwig’s sixteenth work of fiction, is the most conventional and least ambitious. The narrative relates the story of Jean, who grows up in Belleville, Ontario, during the prohibition era, travels to the United States to pursue an acting career, marries a French count and, after the devastation of World War II, returns to Canada, where she dies alone and unknown. One of the novel’s characters is a photographer, and Jean spends much of her professional life in front of the camera lens. Characteristically, Helwig’s technique is to present a sequence of jarringly disconnected scenes that unfold chronologically. The sharply drawn but unstable images of place and time serve to contextualize the main character, to define her selfhood at a given moment. Though Helwig’s refusal to move beyond "the time of her life" into an exploration of Jean’s psychological complexity is inevitable, perhaps, given his reliance on the scenic and the literal, it is not without risks: there are only so many times we need to know that "Jean did what was necessary" or "Jean did as she was told" before we come to see her as a woman defined by her disengagement.
Yet by remaining consistently true to point of view and technique, Helwig allows a portrait of a heroine to finally emerge. As Jean deals with successive losses, she becomes defined less and less by time and place and more by her capacity to register pain and suffering and to persevere in spite of life’s inevitable erasure. With this capacity, Jean assumes a larger and paradoxically enduring presence in our minds; her diminishing becomes Helwig’s resolute celebration of her having lived. Helwig’s accomplishment is the way he compels us to admire and mourn a woman whose inner depths are seldom revealed—indeed, for much of the novel, scarcely even entertained.
Poet-playwright Michael Redhill’s first novel is a work as finely and complexly wrought as the "bereft little worlds" of Martin Sloane, the creator of miniature glass boxes containing found objects tanta-lizingly arranged to embody the artist’s past (Sloane’s art is based on the works of American collagist Joseph Cornell). Upstate New York student Jolene Iolas accidentally discovers one of Martin’s enigmatic boxes on display at a Toronto gallery during a class field trip, becomes obsessed by the work, then by the Irish-Canadian artist himself, luring him to her college and becoming his lover. Martin, twenty-five years Jolene’s senior, continues to live in Toronto, visiting Jolene on weekends for three years before his mysterious disappearance. Not surprisingly, Jolene is left with an enormous gap in her life, which eventually ends her career as a college teacher and her friendship with her roommate Molly, who refuses to return Jolene’s desperate phone calls. But ten years later, with her life partly restored and living in Toronto, Jolene is beckoned to Ireland by Molly, who has discovered Martin’s boxes in a Dublin gallery. The "trail" leads them to a Dublin house of two reclusive sisters (one of whom is Martin’s abandoned elderly wife). Retracing Martin’s steps as a boy when his family moved to Galway, Jolene meets Martin’s father, also estranged from Martin (though the father, in this case, has done the abandoning) and pathetically attempting to forge a tenuous connection by clumsily reproducing his son’s art for sale in Dublin.
Martin Sloane is a disquieting novel of psychological dependency, focusing on the complex, though not always convincing, love triangle involving the narrator, her artist-lover, and Molly, whom Martin and Jolene entertain the day Martin vanishes. Molly’s determination to seek redemption for a brief flirtation with Martin (which she believes was responsible for the latter’s departure) in light of the many betrayals— conscious and unconscious—in the book seems implausible. But the novel is really less about relationships than about the capacity for relationships to turn into destructive repositories of guilt and obsession that erode lives even as they are distorted by time and, sometimes, by art. Martin Sloane continually challenges our conception of the source of art and the power of memory, and the dependency of both on illusion and fabrication.
Throughout, the astonishing seamless-ness of Redhill’s design creates a multi-layered novel that incorporates perspectives on the past and present and prohibits closure. Obsessed with Martin’s past, as if this knowledge could provide clues to his disappearance, Jolene slowly undergoes the process of self-recovery: as Jolene reassembles fragments of Martin’s past (becoming a kind of miniaturist herself) she increasingly confronts her own past. At such points of convergence as Jolene’s memory of her visit to her family home, itself a site of absence and paternal abandonment, Redhill’s prose eloquently negotiates the delicate balance between raw memory and the power to synthesize and transform experience.
Purple for Sky, Bruneau’s engaging first novel, chronicles the lives of three generations of women over the span of more than a century. The narratives are complexly interwoven, like the threads of the crazy quilt created by the first of these women, Euphemia, who is thirteen years old when her large family immigrates to Nova Scotia. Effie marries Silas Lewis, whose parents run the village store and whose mother’s religious and domestic fervor introduces Effie to a new life, but one which threatens to stifle her spirit, until the appearance of a childhood love recalls sexual desire. Effie’s narrative takes the form of journal entries to her dead sister Fanny. The journal and its confessions are discovered by Effie’s older child, Ruby, but it is Lucinda, the abandoned daughter of Ruby’s younger sister, who has the potential to realize the kind of resolve expressed at the end of Effie’s narrative : "Things to look forward to in my next life: 1) No feeding. No roasts, absolutely no pies. No cracked hands from peeling potatoes. 2) No washing. No dishes, no soap scum or wet cuffs. 3) No clothes to hang out. 4) No clothes to bring in. 5) No ironing. 6) No sewing, no mending... No regrets." One of the novel’s weaknesses is that Effie’s voice here does not really ring true as that of a feminist prototype; it is most authentic when it speaks from the depths of repression and regret, rather than when it openly challenges conventional gender roles.
Born after the much earlier death of a son (the childbirth scene is one of the most memorable in the novel), Ruby embodies and lives out the negative potential that, for Effie, marks the life of service and subordi nation. But, in her own way, Ruby, though stifled, is an admirable character. She endures a marriage of betrayal, adopting Lucinda, her younger sister’s child, and running the family store prudently before succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease and the discovery, on reading her mother’s journal, of her illegitimacy. It is Ruby, victim of both the past and future, who destroys the quilt. Although it is the symbol of Effie’s repressed individuality and creativity, the quilt’s destruction does not signal the triumph of the rigid past, for Lucinda is able to redeem the quilt’s symbolic qualities, to transmute feminine artistry into feminine life. Lucinda has some of her aunt Ruby’s sense of duty, but more of her grandmother’s potential for sexual expression, and her narrative reveals her awakening, in her mid-fifties, to her sexual identity. Unlike Ruby, Lucinda is not prepared to accept only what she is given; comically honest with herself and her desires, she hesitates but, in the end, affirms the necessity of stepping outside family and material obligation to probe her limits for vital, truly human relationships.
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MLA: Henderson, Eric. Loss and Longing. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 139 - 141)
***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.