Pilgrim and Parable
- Kathleen Winter (Author)
Annabel. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sheldon Currie (Author)
Two More Solitudes. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jim Taylor
“If you watch a game it’s fun. If you play it, it’s recreational. If you work at it, it’s golf.” This droll observation from Bob Hope could have been a cryptic chapter heading in Sheldon Currie’s novel, Two More Solitudes. Play is a vital metaphor in Ian MacDonald’s pilgrimage as he moves from Cape Breton to Quebec and back. The journey tracks his maturation from a pseudo-philosophical search for meaning to acceptance of personal responsibility to the realization that he must put away the things of a child and accept that his grandmother’s advice, “Don’t let your life get in the way of your dreams,” needs revising. Vergile, his guide, rightly tells him, “Don’t let your dreams get in the way of your life.”
Gifted, athletic, clever, scholarly, and so charmingly comical that one woman virtually imprisons him as her sex slave, Ian reminds us of the ’60s hippies in search of themselves. Currie depicts Ian as an Everyman or perhaps an Every(young)man. He enjoys having his own way and neglects the needs of those around him. He thinks the world is his oyster. His hubris is jarringly laid open to him in a sequence of events that disrupt his narcissistic pilgrimage. We exult when he gets his comeuppance from the two women he imposed upon (he’s called a “hypocritical prick” and an “ass-hole”), and we exult even more when he catches Marie (his ex-girlfriend) and Father Angus making love in a locker room. As a pilgrim sailor searching for his bearings at sea, the sight of Father Angus and Marie in delecto flagrante takes the wind from his sails.
The image of play is everywhere, the most obvious being Ian’s and Father Angus’ love of baseball and the suicide squeeze, a gambit for intimidating a batter. Perhaps more significant are the frequent early references to Harlequin’s Carnival, a painting by the Spanish artist Joan Miró. In the Christian calendar, the harlequin’s carnival is like Mardi Gras before Lent, when carnivalesque indulgence is permitted: the normal order is overturned, and excess and debauchery are the order of the day. Ian, like the Lord of Misrule, a Falstaffian buffoon, is king for a moment. Surreal and mysterious, Miró’s painting has the playfulness of folk artists like Maud Lewis, and Currie’s approach to his material has the same playful quality. Two obvious parallels between the painting and the novel are seen in Currie’s prose and his use of religious imagery.
Playfulness defines Currie’s prose—puns, double entendres, ironic repartee, scatterings of literary references, ancient and popular, abound. But the most striking parallel to the Harlequin’s Carnival is religious allusion. The Catholic Church is a constant and informing backdrop in Currie’s writing. Here we see parodies of The Divine Comedy with two Virgil guides, and a parody of the Crucifixion, with Ian and Marie dragging a cross through downtown Halifax. Currie has learned much from the works of Flannery O’Connor, and this delightful novel, rich in allusions, is attuned to Cape Breton speech.
Annabel, the story of Wayne Blake, deals realistically with clinical and physical hermaphroditism—penis size, menstruation, fallopian tubes. But Kathleen Winter is more interested in using the myth of the hermaphrodite as a metaphor (the ancient alchemists saw the story of Hermes and Aphrodite’s child as symbolic of perfection) to supply spiritual insights into ourselves and our world. She asks us to step outside accepted normality and imagine a different reality—one in which she dramatizes the truth that to name is to limit. This drama unfolds on the magical shifting stage of Labrador’s compelling landscape. The Labradorian relationship with the land transcends ordinary love of pastoral scenery. For Wayne’s father, Treadway, it is a visceral connection to the magnetic force of nature, and Winter’s enchanting prose convinces us that such a connection is possible.
Virginia Woolf’s epigraph about the intermixing of the sexes and the dream-like prologue of the mythical white caribou that has deserted the herd to walk thousands of miles alert us to the ominous motif that Winter explores—ominous because the glimpse of the solitary caribou causes the death of the first Annabel and her blind father. As in a Greek chorus’ chanting, we are constantly reminded of the risks faced by the solitary—those who strive to free their vision from rigid stereotypes and embrace life’s complexity. Winter adroitly affirms that much is risked when renouncing the pack, but much is gained.
The Blakes’ infant is born with male and female genitalia. Treadway wants the child raised as a male; Jacinta wants it left alone. Jacinta, perhaps against her better judgment, accedes to her husband’s wishes. The baby is christened Wayne, but both Jacinta and the family’s closest friend, Thomasina, secretly use the name Annabel after Thomasina’s drowned child.
Wayne struggles with his confused sexual urges. At nine, he is captivated by women’s synchronized swimming—both by its exquisite movements and the swimmers’ outfits. His mother lets him purchase a red bathing costume. His fascination with design invokes the novel’s most intricate image—the bridge. Like the hermaphrodite, the bridge is symbolic of oneness. Bridges allow things separate to be joined. A most poignant scene in the novel is the destruction of Wayne’s playhouse where he studies the bridges of London, Edinburgh, Paris, and Florence. These bridges share the symmetry he loved in synchronized swimming. His own bridge, draped in blankets, rope, and tarpaulin, with delicate lattice-work designs, was a refuge where he could play with Wally Michelin, a charming girl—self-contained and compassionate—a devotee of Gabriel Fauré’s music. But Treadway cannot accept his son’s fantasy world or his relationship with Wally. He dismantles the entire bridge—and destroys Wally’s cherished Fauré score. Ultimately, Treadway must expiate his crime by replacing the Fauré sheet-music and by providing Wayne with an opportunity to study—he chooses architecture. Recalling King Midas, Treadway sells his gold.
Notwithstanding the pain suffered by Wayne and by his parents, this is a captivating romantic novel with a happy ending.
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MLA: Taylor, Jim. Pilgrim and Parable. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #209 (Summer 2011), Spectres of Modernism. (pg. 154 - 156)
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