- Lisa Moore (Author)
Alligator. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Kristen Warder (Author) and Lori Lansens (Author)
The Girls. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kristen Warder
Lisa Moore’s latest novel opens with a foreboding image: an alligator with open jaws. While absentmindedly flipping through a fashion magazine, a teenaged Colleen watches the animal in one of her Aunt Madeleine’s industrial safety videos. A man expertly approaches the alligator. He carefully places his head in its mouth. Without warning the jaws snap shut, and the alligator farmer is viciously mauled on film. Although it seems improbable, Madeleine, watching the television over Colleen’s shoulder, claims that Loyola Rosewood survived the attack. Miraculously he did, and his physical scars embody the less visible, but equally disfiguring, emotional scars of the novel’s major characters who have all been ravaged by that which the title animal symbolizes: the brutal vicissitudes of life. Above all, Alligator is a novel about the various ways in which individuals respond to seemingly random life-changing events.
Comprised of chapters told from different points of view, the novel recounts the various relationships and fateful meetings of six people in St. John’s, Newfoundland. All have been forever altered by losses of loved ones. Following the unexpected death of her beloved stepfather David, for instance, Colleen, a happy, well-adjusted kid, transforms into a troubled, self-destructive adolescent who, to the surprise of her mother Beverley, is caught committing an eco-terrorist act. Beverley, a steely woman, determinedly vows to “drive on” after the devastating death of her husband, yet she has lost her “joie de vivre” and emotionally withdraws from those around her. Beverley’s older sister Madeleine, a workaholic who willingly gave up her marriage for a successful career in filmmaking, feels a similar emptiness. Suffering from heart failure throughout the making of what will be her first and last feature film, she misses her ex-husband Marty desperately, and so fixates even more on her art. Frank, the aptly named nineteen-year-old hotdog vendor, works relentlessly after having witnessed his mother’s long and painful death from breast cancer in the hopes that he will attain a life in which he no longer has to settle for second best. A shocking turn of events set in motion by Valentin, a calculating Russian sailor with a violent past, however, puts both Frank’s and the aging actress Isobel’s futures in jeopardy. Moore’s complex characters are by turns compassionate and cruel, loving and merciless. All share one thing: a determination to survive. They no longer wait for life to attack: they make things happen.
Told with a rare precision of detail and filled with vital characters, this cinematic novel is much like the randomly spliced footage Colleen watches at the novel’s outset: Alligator is full of visual detail, abrupt cuts, and startling juxtapositions. Moore switches effortlessly from topic to topic, scene to scene, past to present, and one perspective to another, as one might switch channels on a television. Fittingly, the novel achieves just what Madeleine proposes her documentaries offer: an unexpected story, a strong message, at least one belly laugh.
Lori Lansens’s The Girls chronicles the fictional lives of Rose and Ruby Darlen, the world’s oldest surviving craniopagus twins. After they are diagnosed with an aneurysm at the age of twenty-nine, “the girls,” as the conjoined twins are generally referred to in their home town of Leaford, Ontario, set out to write their autobiography. This is the novel Lansens presents: an autobiography told in two distinct voices. Although joined at the head, Rose and Ruby couldn’t be more different. Whereas Rose enjoys reading, writing, and following sports, Ruby likes watching television and searching for First Nations artefacts. It is Rose, who, knowing that she has less than six months to live, becomes obsessed with writing the story of their lives. She initially plans to call it “Autobiography of a Conjoined Twin.” After Ruby questions how Rose can write the story of her life when it is actually the story of their lives, however, Rose encourages her twin to write some of the chapters. Ruby reluctantly goes along, and the twins decide not to discuss what they write with one another. What results is a series of stories told from strikingly different points of view and a novel that, consequently, deals with questions of identity, perception, memory, narrative, and genre.
Filled with irony, gentle humour, and a cast of eccentric minor characters led by the girls’ loving adoptive parents, Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, the twins’ stories evoke a vivid picture of small-town life in Southern Ontario. Lansens’s episodic novel somewhat surprisingly contains echoes of earlier Canadian coming-of-age novels, such as Anne of Green Gables. Looking back on their lives, the girls recount a series of often humorous misadventures, successes, and otherwise formative moments that result from their attempts to navigate an often foreign and unwelcoming world. The Girls is chiefly about their lifelong quest for belonging. Although they never transcend their misfit status, the reader cannot help but notice that the twins have the same desires and aspirations as other young women: they want to make friends, travel, be kissed, obtain jobs, and become independent. Despite their unusual situation, they experience it all and more.
The real triumph of The Girls is its capacity to show that these extraordinary twins are, at bottom, exceedingly ordinary. The novel’s book jacket claims, “The sisters attempt to lead a normal life, but they can’t help being extraordinary.” The opposite is equally true: however extraordinary the twins might initially seem, one quickly realizes that they are just two sisters who work in a small-town library. The novel’s title, which Rose ultimately settles on near the end of her writing, suggests their ordinariness. It also symbolizes the tension in Lansens’s novel between connectedness and separation: this one phrase names both twins but does not singularize them. The twins’ unique bond is itself characterized as ordinary when Rose insightfully proposes, “Ruby and I endure because of our connectedness. Maybe we all do.” Lansen’s novel suggests just that.
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MLA: Warder, Kristen. Random Acts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #189 (Summer 2006), The Literature of Atlantic Canada. (pg. 162 - 163)
***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.