- Julie Johnston (Author)
As If by Accident. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Mary Lawson (Author)
The Other Side of the Bridge. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andrea Wasylow Sharman
How well do we know our loved ones? And how many lives have we unknowingly touched and profoundly affected, even if only by happenstance? These questions receive creative and satisfying treatments in Julie Johnston’s first novel for adults, As If by Accident, and Mary Lawson’s second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge. The secrets encapsulated within these novels burn not achingly, but unapologetically. The message that belies these skillfully woven narratives is that even though some secrets should stay secrets, they will out eventually, unbidden.
The physical manifestation of a singular obstacle leads Johnston’s character Val to discover that for which she had not even known to look. Beyond the guilt she feels for her husband’s death, beyond the ensuing mysteries of unknown properties, family relations and events, new life exists in the form of a manuscript to edit, which is more her hopeful project and prerogative than she knows. She and Johnston’s co-protagonist Gus become inextricably linked in innumerable ways. Johnston deftly shows how these linkages make sense; they are so easy, so matter-of fact, and so common, that it makes us marvel at the permutations of human interconnectedness.
Given this notion, both of these novels beg the question: what if we could prevent an accident from happening? How can’t we see it coming? Johnston offers: “It’s when we come face to face with our frailties and our own mismanagement that we have this need to be the scapegoat.” Even though Val and Gus both watch as dear ones literally run toward the flames instead of away, As If by Accident sees tragedy and loss provoke inspiration, creativity, and the possibility for greatness. The obstructions in this book try to show us that we each take too much responsibility for the outcomes of others, and that complex assessments of degrees of guilt and culpability cannot help but result in negation.
Arthur must reconcile himself to this same conclusion, as he shoulders an enormous and unfair burden in The Other Side of the Bridge. Driven and devoted to protecting his younger brother Jake from the most dangerous force, which is Jake himself, Arthur loses time, opportunity, and love, but he will gain anew. A deadly mix of charming and devious, Jake’s most cruel act is making Arthur constantly guess at the real behind his seeming intent. Lawson’s is a vivid portrayal of how intangible debts, even imaginary ones, will exact a price that is unquestionably too high to pay. This realization gives weight to the preponderant influences that certain characters have over others: “Once it has left your lips, you cannot take it back.”
The drama of Lawson’s novel rests in one character’s abandoning another at the brink of a totality. Ian irretrievably loses his mother; Arthur’s hollowness cannot be filled by Laura; and Jake becomes a “free agent” not only because of Arthur, but more so because of his own grievously wrong judgment. Jealousy amongst brothers, amongst lovers, results in death, results in choice. This novel studies characters trying in various ways to make amends with each other, and with themselves: each attempt is riddled with strife, error, and remorse. Lawson’s novel veers from promoting forgiveness as goal, and toward forbearance.
The forms of these two novels are very deliberate and competent. They read as stream-of-consciousness, but by blending the third-person narrative in interweaving chapters and sections, with non-linear sequencing, the characters converge and collide with each other, as form extends to meaning.
There are sufficient details and explorations of universal themes in Johnston’s and Lawson’s novels that we can easily glimpse how our own lives could become impressive, unbelievable, troubled, stories. Like Ian and his friend Pete, we can sit back and watch dragonflies, not quite understanding how infinitesimal we are. Like Val, we can feel deep down that our suspicion exists for a good reason. The secrets revealed in these novels are nothing short of staggering, and the characters deserve our investment.
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MLA: Sharman, Andrea Wasylow. (Un)Settling Secrets. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 142 - 143)
***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.