Outside the Ordinary
- Claudia Day (Author)
Stunt. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Shari Lapeña (Author)
Things Go Flying. Brindle & Glass (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Cara Hedley (Author)
Twenty Miles. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jodi Lundgren
In both Twenty Miles and Stunt, a young female narrator matures in the shadow of a larger-than-life, absent father. In Things Go Flying, a fallible father of teenaged boys suffers a mid-life crisis. In these three novels, coming of age involves earnest intensity while middle age tends to the ridiculous.
When, by the end of a novel, a protagonist gains a new identity "in addition to his previous identities as an underachiever, an inadequate father, a consumer of goods, and a cuckold," you can be fairly certain it is a comedy. Shari Lapeña, one of several contemporary writers revisiting omniscient narration, puts a bathetic spin on the classic comedic plot arc: her protagonist, Harold Walker, begins in adversity and ends in slightly improved circumstances.
Murphy's Law reigns as two accidental blows to the head trigger the psychic powers that Harold inherited from his mother and has concealed from everyone, including his wife, in a desperate bid to be ordinary. Indeed, each member of Harold's family harbours a secret, to which the reader alone is privy. The misunderstandings that result contribute greatly to the novel's humour. Poltergeists aside, Harold's unadventurous life contrasts sharply with that of the identity thief who leaves "a trail of blazing glory" on Harold's credit card: items charged include an Infinity G-35 sports coupe and a first-class airplane ticket to Brazil. But Lapeña turns Harold's phlegmatic nature into a virtue, invoking the novel's epigraph from Voltaire's Candide: "we must cultivate our garden." Expanded upon during hilarious sessions with a philosopher whom Harold visits instead of a psychologist, the Voltaire motif feels slightly overdone towards the end of the novel as Harold spends increasingly more time sitting on a homemade bench in his backyard. Still, the comic genre requires a tying up of loose ends, and this novel reaches a satisfying resolution.
Lapeña's Harold longs to be ordinary but fails to suppress his paranormal abilities; in Claudia Dey's first novel, Stunt, the ordinary has no quarter whatsoever. Raised and eventually abandoned by an erratic, bipolar father and a diva mother, the nine-year-old narrator, Eugenia, and her "Irish twin" sister, Immaculata, have no opportunity to establish mundane routines. Fiercely loyal to her father, Eugenia searches for him throughout the novel, both in memory and in the present.
The relentlessly extraordinary nature of the characters and events makes for a demanding, unpredictable read. Dey does not reach simply for bizarre, mythic characters (like the metal-detecting diver who lives on a houseboat turning jetsam into jewelry), or quirky macabre situations (like Immaculata's hobby of preserving rodents in formaldehyde). Even incidental passages unfold into a wealth of sensation and suggestion. For instance, Dey gets her characters from a houseboat to a beach on Toronto Island as follows:
[W]e run down to the channel. . . . Some children dance between the cottages in bright raincoats, pockets heavy with water, habitats for fish. Immaculata told me that goldfish grow depending on the space they are accorded. I see the children walking down to the lake and emptying their pockets there, returning day after day to wade into the water and to stroke their giant fish, their hearts swelling and becoming nearly unbearable in their chests.
Dey has revitalized the coming-of-age novel into a touching odyssey in which surreal experiences, such as aging nine years overnight or "walking a wire that is fastened to nothing but the night air," become accessible via a universal theme: no matter how Dionysian the father figure, he must be overcome. Dey allows us to see growing up as a feat-a stunt-parallel to none.
In Twenty Miles, Cara Hedley's narrator, Isabel Norris (Iz), must also transcend the ghost of her father, a hockey star who died at eighteen, leaving her to be raised by her paternal grandparents. Interpolated with third-person passages from the grandmother's point of view, Iz's first-person narrative unfolds chronologically with few flashbacks. The past, however, constantly pulls at the present: Isabel's grandparents started her in hockey to continue their late son's legacy, and Iz now plays for Winnipeg University's hockey team.
The appeal of the game comes across clearly: "The hockey itself was the easy part: hands remembering the story, legs revising, improvising, that self-renewing drama unfolding in the white space between thought, the hard-breath moments when your brain forgets itself and the hands take over." Even more engaging are the finely-drawn portraits of the other women hockey players. Their raunchy colloquialisms and sadistic antics will surprise anyone who assumes that only male jocks revel in scatological humour, public urination, and hazing rituals involving beer bongs.
Yet, an incongruity exists between the coarse subject matter and the lyrical writing style-one that mirrors Iz's internal conflict. Not having chosen the sport, Iz remains distanced from it, observing her teammates' passion without truly sharing it. But the stakes behind the plot's central question-will Iz quit hockey or keep playing?-are not high enough, largely because it does not seem to matter very much to her either way. Iz's confusion and the mixed signals she sends (especially in the romantic subplot) seem to imbue the narrative itself with vacillation, blurring its focus. Despite the great originality and impact of individual scenes and characters, Twenty Miles falls short of the move that Stunt pulls off so well: making an extraordinary coming-of-age fully available to the average reader.
- High Wind in CanLit by Robert McGill
Books reviewed: Galveston by Paul Quarrington
- The Return of the Subject by Bina Toledo Freiwald
Books reviewed: Life-Writing: A Glossary of Terms in Biography, Autobiography, and Related Forms by Donald J. Winslow, Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography by Jeanne Perreault, and Daughters of Self-Creation: The Contemporary Chicana Novel by Annie O. Eysturoy
- A Red River Epic by Reinhold Kramer
Books reviewed: When Alice Lay Down With Peter by Margaret Sweatman
- Question d'identité by Charles Le Blanc
Books reviewed: Un coeur rouge dans la glace by Robert Lalonde
- Looking Inward by Marie Carrière
Books reviewed: Hard Edge by F. G. Paci and Girls Closed In by France Theoret and Luise Von Flotow
MLA: Lundgren, Jodi. Outside the Ordinary. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #202 (Autumn 2009), Sport and the Athletic Body. (pg. 118 - 119)
***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.