- Anne Stone (Author)
Delible. Insomniac Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Shani Mootoo (Author)
He Drown She in the Sea. Emblem Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane
Even the titles of these two books underscore erasure: the former suggests agency, while the latter emphasizes a state of impermanence. In both books, the recurring theme of “no body” and “no resolution” elicits anxiety, suspense, and frustration. Both are punctuated by melancholy. There are appreciable differences in plots, characters, settings; but remarkable overlap in motifs. Anne Stone focuses on the mysterious vanishing of a teenaged girl; Shani Mootoo on non-Resident Indians [NRIs] on an imaginary Caribbean island and in Canada. With some exceptions, both books treat male characters with little sympathy, presuming “he” as agent of the “drowning.”
Anne Stone is formerly from Montreal, and now teaches on the BC Lower Mainland. She co-edited a special issue of the journal West Coast Line on representations of murdered and missing women. Delible is her third novel, and reviewers have noted that while the disappearance serving as premise for her book is set outside Toronto, the subject is reminiscent of Vancouver. The story is told by three female characters, but primarily by 15-year-old Melora [Lora], the younger sister of Melissa [Mel], the disappeared teenager. Sections are narrated by Lora’s mother [Karin] and grandmother [Celia Stokes] who also seek meaning two years after the disappearance. The mirroring of female characters is suggested even in the almost-matching names of the sisters. After Mel disappears, Lora puts on her sister’s glasses so that she can see through her eyes; photographs of Mel could be mistaken for Lora. Such confusion underscores interdependence and the presence of absence.
The fixation on vanishing resonates throughout the book. As Lora recounts “playing dead” with her sister, she also retells a moment of rebellion: “But I don’t come back to her. I won’t come back.” The decision not to “come back” empowers the disappeared, an aspect often suppressed in stories of victims. Erasure also emerges when the girls hide inside the parade float; and when we hear about Uncle Sean who “fell through the ice while skating and drowned,” now a “hole” in the family photographs. Much later, we learn about a concrete bunker under the bridge which has a “powerful whirlpool and dangerous undertow.” Mel ominously comments that if one drowned here, “You’d stay down here forever, swirling round, till the fishes got done with you.”
Such resonances keep the reader engaged, and ultimately thwarted in the attempt to gain answers. Male characters (e.g., the missing father, Jules and Darryl, the authorities) are drawn in largely unsympathetic ways. Lora witnesses Jules’ rough treatment of her sister: “It hadn’t been a kiss so much as a hole Jules was making where her mouth had been.” The voice of the teenaged Lora sometimes sounds incredible—especially in its philosophical reflections—and distinctions between her voice and those of mother and grandmother must be identified through chapter headings.
Most promising is the social commentary on how teenaged girls—especially those who “go missing”—are written, photographed, and made present. People such as Lora and her mother are inconvenient reminders of unresolved melancholy. Young women like Mel are simultaneously “written off” and “written up.” Early in the book, Melissa’s grandmother notices a photograph of Mel and comments that “[i]t wouldn’t be until you looked, really looked, that you’d see it’s not a photograph at all, but a document. Not something taken, but made.” Later, Lora discovers some photographs taken with a Polaroid camera in Jules’ room, and makes the decision to burn all but one of these. Still later, the remaining Polaroid photograph is used in Fred Irving’s news story, which the family hopes will incite action and interest. The grandmother notes that the story appears “down in the bottom right corner of the front page, about as far below the fold as it could be,” and that “[her] granddaughter’s features appear hollowed out.”
The commentary on the “pre-abandoned” and “so-called runaways” whose stories and pictures appear at bus and train stations is haunting. Lora becomes an emblem of melancholy—of loss without resolution or closure. As a forensic anthropologist, Claire, declares: “Absence has its own grammar.” It is this grammar that Stone struggles to articulate. While characters such as Claire appear prescribed—consider the near-twinning of the sisters, and disappearances of father and uncle, the mysterious Woodsman—Stone captures uncertainty and longing in the face of vanishing.
Disappearance also resonates throughout Shani Mootoo’s He Drown She in the Sea, set partly in the imaginary Caribbean island of Guanagaspar around the Second World War, and partly in contemporary Vancouver. The construction of a fictionalized Caribbean space next to an actual Canadian one contributes to the idea of home as absence—particularly among non-Resident Indians [NRIs]. Both spaces are dominated by images of shoreline: after the main character’s father drowns, the narrator declares that “no bodies were recovered”; and a later chapter is titled “No Body.”
The novel’s main character is Harry St. George, and the novel partly focuses on his love for Rose; the book also explores class, gender, and race on Guanagaspar. Male characters rigidly maintain boundaries, from Narine Sangha, husband of Rose’s mother, to Shem Bihar, husband of Rose. Both these men are “fair-skinned Indians,” philandering, arrogant, and insecure. Patterns are repeated through the story of mother and daughter, with absentee “Boss” husband. Predictably, the women seem capable of transgressing boundaries. Harry becomes friends with the little girl until her father learns of the impropriety; after the death of his mother, he moves to Squamish, and becomes a landscape architect. Laying claim to territory is central: “His piece of Canada. None of this would he have had in Guanagaspar.” Ironically, Harry is pulled away from this land he identifies as “his,” and returns to the Caribbean emotionally after Rose visits with her husband.
Harry’s love for Rose is puzzling, partly because her character and motivations appear elusive. Harry spends his early childhood in her home as the son of Mrs. Sangha’s servant; then loses contact with Rose during school years; hearing of her mother’s death, his obsession with the daughter intensifies: “Every minute since was a poker that stoked old embers.” But what repeatedly draws Harry to Rose? The clearest explanation emerges through the tidal metaphor used throughout—the incomprehensible “pull of a Bihar” drawing him from life in Canada when he learns that Rose is missing.
Mootoo was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad, and has lived in Edmonton for several years. The depiction of class and racial boundaries in the Caribbean and Canada is one of the most fascinating elements of the novel, even if it struggles too hard to establish types: in the Caribbean, class boundaries are drawn in the generation of the mid-twentieth century, although all Indians were initially indentured workers; in Canada, there appears to be more mobility. On the island, Harry’s mother challenges the boundary between her family and the Sanghas: “All of we cross Black Water, sometimes six and sometimes seven months side by side in the same stinking boat, to come here … How, child, how out of those beginnings some end up higher than others and some end up lower?” Resonating throughout the narrative are his mother’s words: “All of we, one and all. Same tide. Better than me, my foot!” In Canada, NRIs form a quirky wine-tasting club for former taxi drivers: “His first friends in Canada … fellows who had come from India, Sri Lanka, Fiji, and two were Indians from East Africa…. the Once a Taxi Driver members.” A humorous interaction occurs when Shem, Rose’s husband, is invited to a meeting of the club.
The image of “tide” thus becomes significant throughout the book, suggesting both vanishing and recurrence. However, the book could focus more effectively on one or two of the multiple stories it offers. The temptation to explore alternating perspectives and elude meaning emerges in both novels, but each finally approaches questions arising from disappearance in a thoughtful and thought-provoking manner.
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MLA: Lane, Dorothy F. Missing Persons. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 165 - 166)
***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.