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Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013), Contested Migrations is now available! The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Mariam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, Maude Lapierre, J. I. Little, David Williams, and more.

Notions of Love

Reviewed by Susan Wasserman

In The Barking Dog, Cordelia Strube’s fifth novel, narrator Greer Pentland offers a familiar but nonetheless shocking vision of contemporary apocalypse. Think Heart of Darkness meets The Silent Spring. A catalogue of human failings and offences punctuates Greer’s harrowing account of personal adversity. Divorced from a philandering louse, the single parent of a deeply troubled teenage son, she awakes one day to find her world hideously altered by an aggressive cancer and her son’s murder of an elderly couple. Sam bludgeoned his victims with a shovel, an act apparently committed while sleep-walking. Strube draws us into the narrator’s physical suffering and her agonizing need to understand how someone she knows intimately and loves unconditionally could be capable of the foulest of crimes. With Sam’s transgression—as senseless and motiveless as the violent media stories that fill her with dread—the corrupt world is no longer out there. Throughout, Greer faces her ordeals without self-pity and wields an endearing irreverence for just about everything.

Salvaging what she can from her damaged sense of self—her feelings of worth-lessness stemming from her disfiguring mastectomy and ebbing strength, her failed marriage, and her guilt for having worked instead of being an at-home mom—she tries desperately to mend her fractured relationship with her son. Devoted as she is to him, Greer struggles to believe in his innocence: "He pulls away from me. ... I find myself praying even though there is no God. Please . .. make him not evil."

Through her exchanges of gloom-and-doom stories—gleaned from daily papers and televised evening news—with her equally socially conscious and outraged 88-year-old aunt Sybil, we are taken deep into the slag-heap of the unregenerate: the tragedy of our environmental poisoning, the tyranny of media images, and the assorted atrocities that we commit daily against one another. Greer worries about garbage build-up, carcinogens, and mercury rain. She rails against sensationalized news as entertainment, the justice system as a three-ring circus, and the self-absorption and amorality of those around her. In this world, pregnant women shoot their unborn babies and mothers torture their offspring: "A three-year-old girl was raped, beaten, sexually abused with a ’blunt instrument,’ whipped with chains and a cat-o’-ninetails, shackled while her feet were burned— all by her mother and her current beau."

Embedded in the novel’s brutal imagery (and Sybil’s insistence that the personal is political) is a cautionary, if somewhat heavy-handed, warning: confront social ills; avoid dangerous passivity; take care of one another. If not, we won’t survive. Greer strives to do her part—for example, caring for the deranged daughter of the murdered couple—but ultimately reaches a saturation point, surrendering to her impotence to change the status quo, including her genetic fate. And fasten your seatbelts for the ending—which I won’t give away. If I have a complaint, it’s that the final segments are overly dramatic, even manipulative. Even so, this is a fascinating read. Strube stuns us with her sharp images and draws us in with her protagonist’s heartbreaking and heroic struggle.

If The Barking Dog has a placeless, post-millennial feel to it, The Wife Tree, Dorothy Speak’s first novel, revels in its Canadian specificity—from the strong evocation of Ontario seasons and prairie landscape to the rich, southern Ontario Gothic style. At seventy-five, "old and crumbling," Morgan Hazzard is reviewing her life—a painful retrospective reminiscent of Margaret Laurence’s Hagar Shipley, but without Hagar’s irascibility and contempt. Morgan escorts us though a ten-month period in present time, with sweeping flashbacks forming a large part of the narrative, conjuring her grandparents’ and parents’ rough lives and her own oppressive youth. The book is full of the domestic drama that has filled her life: an illegitimate baby, a daughter’s suicide, incest, betrayal, abuse, forgiveness, and hopeful beginnings.

The diary format evokes another Canadian classic character: the stalwart Mrs. Bentley in Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House. Mrs. Bentley and Morgan— at least Speak’s character is allowed a first name!—share similar trials: loveless marriages, extreme feelings of inadequacy, knowledge of their husbands’ infidelity and of their own potential for betrayal. But, in the end, Morgan finds a freedom far less qualified than her predecessor’s. Morgan’s slow metamorphosis occurs inversely to her husband’s slow death. William has suffered a stroke, and is starving himself in the hospital, having lost any will to go on. His paralysis has destroyed his ability to speak. Silenced all her married life by her domineering, emotionally brittle mate, Morgan now articulates her life like someone who has saved herself from drowning. She writes, at first cautiously, then prolifically, intimately, passionately.

Like The Barking Dog, The Wife Tree is about the difficulties of motherhood. Morgan’s diary entries are often letters to her "girls," her adult daughters who are "scattered all over the globe." She has never had the courage to send these letters, because, she says, they contain too much of the painful past and because she is intimidated by her "worldly-wise" offspring. They mock her—taking their cue from William—making her feel stupid, old-fashioned, and guilty for her failures as a mother. Looking at Morris, the only one of her six living children to remain in the area, she realizes how damaged he is, how "imperfectly" she loved him. And she hasn’t inspired enough love and homing-instinct in her daughters to seduce them to visit her or even keep in touch. Both Greer and Morgan had bad mothers, a handicap that Greer overcomes but that haunts Morgan. Greer’s attachment to her son gives her the strength to live, whereas Morgan withdraws from her children because they diminish her: ’"In recent years .. . my children have made me feel. .. quite insignificant. There’s no way to be a good parent.... And eventually there comes a time when it’s wise to stop loving your children.’"

Similarly, she recognizes the wisdom in shedding a sense of responsibility to her marriage along with the notion of herself as a defective wife, an impression planted in their wedding bed when William declares, "’There’s a coldness to you, Morgan. It freezes a man’s balls.’" Her emotional separation is boosted by the revelation of William’s decades-long affair: "What a relief it is to unburden oneself of the notion of love." This is not loss or surrender, but reclamation and reconstruction. Through dismantling the past, Morgan moulds herself out of the reconfigured pieces. She blossoms physically, too, overcoming near-blindness and relishing in her new muscularity, a result of her daily treks to the hospital. Having survived a tough and unexpected rebirth, she acknowledges her contentment: "The freedom to follow a path of my choosing, to set my own pace brings me deep satisfaction. I see the orange light [of sunset] shining along my limbs like a reviving fire and somehow feel I’m being brought back to life."



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MLA: Wasserman, Susan. Notions of Love. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 28 July 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 184 - 186)

***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.

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