Re-Inventing the Real
- Catherine Simmons Niven (Author)
A Fine Daughter. Red Deer Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Natalee Caple (Author)
The Plight of Happy People in an Ordinary World. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Maureen Medved (Author)
The Tracey Fragments. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Debbie Howlett (Author)
We Could Stay Here All Night. Beach Holme Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Laurie Kruk
Conventions of gender, of genre, are cast off like last century’s corsets by four Canadian women writers who give the daughter voice within three novels and a story collection. These authors re-invent the real by poking holes in the realist-based Canadian House of Fiction, allowing more light to sweep the basement, clearing away some of this century’s shadows: the casting out of unwed mothers; the abuse of girls, especially sexual; the betrayal of innocence. Three of the four pose pointed questions about the meaning, coherence and potential happiness of contemporary life. Only Simmons Niven risks a "happy ending," via magical intervention and feminist fantasy.
Two of these novels (A Fine Daughter, The Tracey Fragments) come recommended by Robert Kroetsch, sometimes dubbed "Mr. Canadian Postmodern"—and these two represent the most polarized visions. A Fine Daughter, by Catherine Simmons Niven, draws together the citizens of Little Cypress, a 1950s prairie town, in the hope of transformation represented by a migrating flood of butterflies. If the butterfly is the archetype of metamorphosis, then we may accept the astonishing events this day brings, as an ecological miracle. Certainly Simmons Niven is determined to revisit the "feminine mystique" of the 1950s and to suggest an alternative path, of "living from the heart" as the press release puts it. The magical day is prepared for by the arrival of Fran, seventeen years earlier, as a pregnant teenager who bears a daughter, Cora, of unknown fathering. Speculation on the father’s identity keeps the town’s wheels spinning in small-minded ruts. But loving emphasis on mother-daughter bonds, the embodied experience of being female, reinvent a kinder, feminine reality. Simmons Niven is actively involved in "natural" childbirth and midwifery. Her passion is evident in the descriptions of medical orthodoxy regarding birth mid-century, when ether and "twilight sleep" were the norm. Fran, who gives birth without either one, gains in mystery and marginalization, until the day everything changes. On this day, new life is started, lies confronted, and Mrs.Winnie McRae, Women’s Home Companion wife and mother, rediscovers her mother’s herbal remedies and a new career as midwife. The antagonist to this alliance of women and nature is Edgar Johnson, known in his magazine column as "The Good Doctor." The flatness of his character, and his opposition to the swell of change is never challenged—it is both a sign of the exuberance of the novel, especially seen in the descriptions of conscious childbirth, and flatness, in a certain light.
Natalee Caple’s The Plight of Happy People in an Ordinary World also seems to defy the pragmatic reader with an experience that hints at the possibility of the unreal (happy people) while grounding us in the quotidian (ordinary world). Her prose style is spare and assured, and elevates this story of double seduction with "lightness" perhaps borrowed from Milan Kundera. The double seduction is not just middle-aged Josef’s entanglement with two teenage sisters, Irma and Nadja, but also his use of lies and "stories" to complete the magic. Men’s yearning to be "heroes" is punctured, here, by moments of irresponsibility and guilt. As well as "educating" his young paramours, widowed Josef must be a father to five children. Again, the focus is the daughter’s perspective. Irma is impregnated by Josef, but the pregnancy is treated almost casually, as with Cora of A Fine Daughter. This undoing of a plot-generating crisis is another example of women re-writing the romance plot. The "European" flavour of this accomplished novel seems to come not just from the casual affairs of the main characters, the Czech/Polish/Irish matrix of Irma and Nadja, but also from the existential haze which thickens the atmosphere, shading the dialogue with philosphical pro-foundity. The philosophy is relativistic, as the girls’ mother tells her unhappy husband: "Don’t worry. Something will happen and then something else and then something else. Don’t worry. It doesn’t make any difference." Reflecting this attitude, the characters move like chess pieces, and Josef’s destiny is not only sealed by his initial wooing of one sister—provoking the other’s jealousy—but also predicted by his first "story." The careful rendering of hopeful feelings, and tender sensations, of these "happy people" does not outweigh the tragic weight of "ordinary" circumstance. Natalee Caple is admirably balanced in making both perspectives "real."
If A Fine Daughter re-visits the 1950s, Debbie Howlett taps into current nostalgia for the 1970s, in her linked collection of twelve stories, We Could Stay Here All Night. Ordered chronologically, the stories are delivered from the perspective of Diane Wilkinson, an English-Catholic girl growing up in Quebec. Her father’s drinking and restlessness shake the family unit. It unravels over time as the "Love Line[s]" and "Comfort Zone[s]" established by family, teachers, church are revealed to be arbi trary. The father fails to make his heroic Lenten sacrifice of alcohol, and the October Crisis is witnessed by the children, bursting their bubble of security. If Josef of Happy People has his stories, Fred Wilkinson has his hollow magician’s tricks. But his family has nothing better with which to fill the gap he leaves behind him, and the agency Diane finds first as a rebellious teenager, then as a sexually jaded "New Woman" in that story’s acute satire of 1970s feminism, is hollow too. Her attempt to reconnect with the father who abandoned them ends by replacing a reading of the "luck lines" on his palm with the forecasting of his own mortality ("Mount of Venus"). The narrator’s voice matures as she does, and a naive perspective is filled by an increasingly realistic consciousness of the limitations of freedom. We Could Stay Here All Night gradually replaces the title’s youthful dare with the wearying suggestion that we are "Still in the Dark," after all.
Maureen Medved is described by Robert Kroetsch as a "twenty-first-century writer," perhaps because her novel offers a 150-page dramatic monologue comprising tightly-paced brief scenes that are proud to describe themselves as fragments. Medved’s craft as a playwright is essential to her creation of fifteen-year-old runaway Tracey Berkowitz, who scathingly dissects social decay—incompetent parents, patronizing teachers, cruel classmates and sexist society. The use of a clever young "loser" as satiric mouthpiece may be as familiar as Catcher in the Rye, but Medved plays up Tracey’s edginess and mouthiness for all she’s worth, as she introduces herself to another bus rider,
Remember in the news when two retards made a kid? That was me. Just kidding.
The book works as a series of monologues, as Tracey takes flight from her family: parents who appear unable or unwilling to relate to her, and her younger brother, Sonny, who has disappeared. Tracey takes responsibility for creating his persistent illusion that he is a dog. Like Elwood in A Fine Daughter, the young boy flees from his gender role by associating himself, even through "madness," with the natural world. Medved’s work depends on our familiarity with an unreliable first person, and Tracey’s manic speeches assure that we will at least wonder how much of the Sonny story is invented. While looking for Sonny, she also remains obsessed with her "dream-lover," Billy Speed/Bernie Himelfarb. Meanwhile, she gets on and off the bus, seeking contact of one kind or another. She meets a decaying drifter, ironically named Lance, in a bar, and becomes his damsel-in-distress: taken to his apartment, and ministered to, briefly. But the fantasy of escape with Lance, however desperate, is mocked by a violent intruder who beats up Lance and tries to rape Tracey. In her sexual vulnerability, Tracey echoes her "Baba," who was raped by a Polish "horseman." The stigmatizing of women as "holes" is one of the refrains that link the fragments, as is Tracey’s retelling of her misfit sufferings in third person, herself sadly defined as "It." The grim anecdote about how the "titless girl" (another alter ego) is accused by her classmates of having "razorburn," due to the depiliation her parents force on her, is as arresting as a wound. The reader is pulled into the position of listener/confidante/witness to the protagonist’s swings between rage and despair. This see-saw would be exhausting, but for the pauses between "fragments." It is not surprising to hear that Medved has performed some of the text dramatically.
Perhaps generic categories will loosen further in the 21st century. The creation of tough, uncensored women’s voices, captured in active prose and strong off-beat images by all four writers suggests that gender scripts are also being rewritten. No longer content to be "nice girls" who look tor a pat on the head from (male?) critics or teachers, these female authors create daughters (and mothers) who dare to be violently angry, painfully honest, playfully philosophical... and wholly female.
- The Recompense of Memory by Claire Mulligan
Books reviewed: The Reckoning of Boston Jim by Claire Mulligan
- Short Fictions by Kathryn Ready
Books reviewed: The Oxford Anthology of Raj Stories by Saros Cowasjee and Reading in Alice Munro's Archives by Joann McCaig
- Women's (Re)Production by Charmaine Eddy
Books reviewed: Mothering the Race: Women's Narratives of Reproduction, 1890-1930 by Allison Berg, Quilt Stories by Cecilia Macheski, and Weaving the Word: The Metaphorics of Weaving and Female Textual Production by Kathryn Sullivan Kruger
- Drag the Lake for Voices by Jennifer Fraser
Books reviewed: Treading Water by Anne DeGrace and Phantom Lake: North of 54 by Birk Sproxton
- Memory, Family, Politics by Deborah Torkko
Books reviewed: Sisters of Grass by Theresa Kishkan, Speak Mandarin Not Dialect by Elizabeth Haynes, Girls around the House by M.A.C. Farrant, and Gravity Lets You Down by Maggie Helwig
MLA: Kruk, Laurie. Re-Inventing the Real. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #169 (Summer 2001), (Blais, Laurence, Birdsell, Munro, Jacob, Chen). (pg. 157 - 159)
***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.