In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth responds to her husband’s angst after killing the king with the simplistic phrase, “A little water clears us of this deed.” Gavin in Jennifer Spruit’s first novel, A Handbook for Beautiful People, ponders a similarly easy self-annihilation as he stands on Calgary’s bridge:
The Bow River below is glacial, rushing and wide, cutting into sandstone bedrock like it has for centuries. . . . This is when he should try to find grounds big enough to overcome what has been done, but he has no reason.
The multifarious image of water is threaded through the three novels reviewed here. However, water in these books does not “clear” the characters of their internal and external nightmares, but erodes, distorts, isolates, and reflects the horror. All three books focus on examples of human actions and relationships that are never resolved, and of systems that spread the stain.
Carol Giangrande’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air immediately, for instance, confronts the futility of optimism despite its setting on a seemingly idyllic island of retreat for the primary character, Valerie. The title is a quotation from Marx’s Communist Manifesto that refers to the contradictory and deceptive nature of economic and political systems: “All that is solid melts into air . . . and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life, and his relations with his kind.” Gavin contemplating suicide in the Prologue of Spruit’s novel is an echo of this compulsion to face “real conditions.” Giangrande’s book also shares its title with the 1970s critique of modernity and progress by Marshall Berman; Giangrande’s narrative is grounded in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, but similarly displays the human cost of political dogmatism.
Witnessing the destruction unfolding “live” through mass media from the apparent isolation of the island of St. Pierre off the coast of Canada—“A speck of France in the eye of the sea”—Valerie’s planned retreat becomes nightmarish. Human interventions such as clocks become the recurrent sound image, a mechanical object that somehow continues to work despite the failure of other technologies like email and cellphones. Valerie attempts to reach her husband, Gerard, on assignment in New York, and her son and his partner who also live and work there. The ticking of clocks becomes an underlying noise, like water dripping, but rather than sweeping away the sins of the past, it reminds her of recurrence of partisan events and their tragic consequences.
The choice of the historical moment seems almost gratuitous since the book interweaves past and present through Valerie’s perspective, and the intersections verge on implausibility. We learn that Gerard’s former partner was killed in the Swissair bombing of 1970, and that he left Montreal during the height of the October Crisis. Valerie’s own childhood friend is possibly on a flight that day. It is Giangrande’s poetic voice that carries the narrative reflecting Valerie’s internal dialogue. Near the beginning, for instance, Valerie notes that “when the world starts to break, you break, too” and “there’s no way out”—a statement that mirrors her isolation on the island, and sense of vulnerability. At times, her voice approximates hallucination, as she envisions connections not rooted in geography, but with the fluidity of water: “And while you’re here in my head, she said to James [her son’s partner], talk to me about Andre. You’ve been such a comfort for him. Keep him alive for me.”
A much more austere narrative set on water, Rick Hillis’ posthumously published novel, A Place You’ll Never Be, demonstrates the collapse of systems imposed on nature and humanity. His novel focuses on a six-day canoe trip through northern Saskatchewan, a plan to reintegrate penitentiary inmates into mainstream society. Hillis punctuates this grand project with the buzzing of mysterious insects—similar to Giangrande’s clocks—that consume the wilderness. This candid, disturbingly dark novel was published three years after the writer’s unexpected death; it draws on other dystopic river journeys, and intersects genres of magic and dirty realism. This indeed is a place the reader—Canadian, even Saskatchewanian—has never been, and would not willingly go, as magnificent as it initially sounds. Images of parasitical infestation, rocks, trees, rain are drawn in painful detail, intersecting with subtly sinister human tools such as the single gutting knife and camp axe, and the futility of the canoes carrying the group. The six people on the journey—five inmates and a naive guard—are joined by a woman and her son, and these “outsiders” to the group connect vividly to the “trustee,” Quinn. The alliance is tenuous and complex, as the characters are neither sympathetic nor wholly repulsive, and we care about their backstories, as well as their fates.
As the journey unravels, with the ironic destination of the White Chapel at Mission Lake, the ghastly images of consumption, decay, and aggression increase incrementally, so that the reader is left wondering what further cruelty can emerge, sometimes literally, from the depths of the river. The use of water’s destructive and erosive power—the gorge and rapids travellers must navigate—dismantles any easy optimism about how this project will unfold. There are rare moments of communion and connection, but as in Giangrande’s book, these are often intangible and coincidental.
In Spruit’s engaging Handbook for Beautiful People, hope becomes more evident, and is accompanied by a refreshing and quirky sense of humour mixed with pathos. All of Spruit’s characters are somehow damaged by society’s definitions, and have been chewed up by larger systems of social services, institutions, and networks. Marla, living with FASD, becomes pregnant by her distracted cellist-lover, Liam, and the medical professionals immediately presume she will terminate the pregnancy. Instead, she calls on her younger brother Gavin, the “deaf-mute” sibling now employed in a care home, who is struggling with anger, anxiety, and aggression issues. Gavin is also looking for the alcoholic mother who abandoned him. Marla’s housemate, Dani, is an addict who resorts to prostitution to support her habit, but longs to be reunited with the son removed from her custody. It’s an eccentric and potentially explosive combination of characters, and Spruit’s narrative aptly alternates among them with the improbable title of her novel as an enigma. The “Handbook” refers to a notebook Gavin finds at a bus stop, completely empty, which he appropriates and begins to fill with his own observations. The notion of “beautiful people”—an ironic play on the adage that “beauty sells”—is set against this cast of apparently unattractive people. Even the notion of a “handbook” is treated ironically, since it draws on the ambiguity of our concepts of beauty, and the formulaic approach of the self-help genre.
Like Hillis’ novel focusing on the correctional system, Spruit’s book digs into the collateral damage of social services, foster care, and health care systems. Just as the river in Hillis’ book takes us deeper into the messy business of mandated and chosen attachments, Spruit uses a recurring image of the Bow River as a “meeting place” where “people have been coming together . . . for centuries to share and build and make a living.” The recurring themes of despair and disconnection culminate as we reach the climax of this novel, and yet there is humour and hope in that gathering. All three books, then, probe the unsettling element of water, a force that intertwines with these human characters and often underscores their entrapment within or damage by inhumane systems. With a variety of approaches, tones, and narrative strategies, all three expose the chaotic yet rewarding work of relationships.