Search for Embodiment
Reviewed by Claire Duncan
In her first novel, The Bone Cage, Angie Abdou writes a fascinating and topical story about two athletes training for the Olympics. However, as the novel deftly demonstrates, these two characters, Sadie and Digger, must struggle against being identified simply by their sport. By using two extremely gruelling and demanding sports, Abdou shows how the sport itself demands the complete sacrifice of not only the physical body (which as she describes it would certainly be enough), but also any sort of outside identity. Sadie is a swimmer: she cannot even recognize herself when she does not sweat chlorine. With the high demands both characters make on themselves, and the perseverance and determination involved in their triumphant performances, Abdou easily could have slipped into the clichéd sports story. However, by creating multifaceted characters who can on the one hand block out everything to give the performance of a lifetime, but who on the other hand are also humanly enough to question the basis of their identities, Abdou creates a new kind of sports story.
Though the whole of the novel is smoothly narrated, Abdou’s writing reaches its pinnacle in the beautifully conveyed scenes in which Sadie and Digger swim or wrestle. With a background in competitive swimming, Abdou’s grasp of a prose that perfectly captures the merging of the body and the water, seems perfectly natural. Remarkably, Digger’s wrestling scenes do not suffer from her lack of personal experience. Once more, she shows us the narrowing of an athlete’s world, in which the precisely trained body must either ignore the pain that begs it to stop, or lose.
Alongside the perfectly flawed characters and their struggles with life as athletes, Abdou gives a piercing look at national attitudes to sport. Especially pertinent with the upcoming 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is Abdou’s presentation of characters who begin to doubt the value of their lifelong pursuit of Olympic glory. At moments, the novel teeters close to becoming a commonplace inspirational sports story, but Abdou constantly pulls it back by giving an unflinching look at the pain and the doubt involved in being a successful athlete. The Olympics are the centre of Sadie’s and Digger’s lives, because as athletes who toil in sports that are all but ignored in Canada, the Games represent their one chance for recognition.
The Bone Cage gives us a stirring portrait of people who are seemingly destined to excel in their sport from a young age, but who as they near the end of their careers struggling in anonymity, living off the pennies of their monthly carding allowance, and training six hours a day, grasp onto the Olympics as their last hope. Striving for that Olympic Gold Medal is Sadie’s only way to preserve her identity as swimmer. If she wins, Sadie can always have that tangible result of years of swimming to proclaim her identity. She can always be Sadie Jorgenson, 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist in 800m free. Without that medal, though, she will be forced to redefine herself outside the tiny, familiar parameters of sport. Though it seems impossibly grim at times, with each other’s help, Sadie and Digger may just be able to live with their beat-up bodies, injured through years of abuse, and begin the difficult search for some new identity.
For anyone who has an intimate knowledge of either sport, Abdou’s vocabulary can sometimes feel clumsy, as she avoids the narrow jargon of the sport. Although these inclusive descriptions are cumbersome, they reinforce the tiny fraction of readership that is involved in wrestling or swimming, how unknown their sport is to anyone else. Abdou stumbles slightly in her all too overt inclusion of various literary quotations. As a former English literature student, Sadie is inclined to remember bits of her favourite poems. However, instead of introducing these quotes naturally, as they would come into Sadie’s mind, Abdou finds it necessary to slow down her own lovely prose and shout to her reader that she is quoting Browning or Yeats. As shown by the final scene of the novel, these words can speak powerfully for themselves, whether or not the reader recognizes that they are written by Browning.
The Bone Cage extends past sport, exploring the tentative relationship between people and their bodies. Are we simply prisoners of our own “bone cage,” predestined by our body, or can we overcome the limits of our body? Do we even want to overcome our body, or is it simply inseparable from ourselves? The Bone Cage’s questioning of an inherent self-body dichotomy reaches out universally, involving not only sport, but also illness and death. Ultimately, because Abdou does not offer concrete answers for these questions, she shows that though the specific relationship between body and self is individualized, our struggle to reconcile them is universal.
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MLA: Duncan, Claire. Search for Embodiment. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 112 - 113)
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