A Tangled Web

  • Sandy Marie Bonny (Author)
    Yes, and Back Again. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Alexis von Konigslow (Author)
    The Capacity for Infinite Happiness. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Charlotte R. Mendel (Author)
    A Hero. Inanna (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

If there is a single theme that reverberates through all three of these recent novels, it is that human relationships, personalities, places, political and social issues are far from straightforward or static. On the contrary, they are, like the map of family sketched by the young narrator of Alexis Von Konigslow’s The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, “sticky like spiderwebs” or “disintegrated like images in a kaleidoscope.” Both characters and readers seek clarity and order in the unravelling of stories that cross locations and generations, historical events and diverse people. However, it is that web of ambiguity, and the disentangling and reconstitution of secrets—“the things that are hidden”—that impel these absorbing books. Math becomes an instrument both of solution, and of infinite complexity.

In Nova Scotia writer Charlotte Mendel’s a hero, the captivating gender-fluid child, Mazin, enjoys reviewing his cousin’s photographic archive, and prefers his studies in mathematics over other subjects; in his view, every problem should have a solution. In attempting to arrive at a definition of heroism during the turmoil of the Arab Spring, he makes a list of the qualities he associates with a hero; however, as the narrative weaves through the perspectives of family members, and their responses to the protests, increasingly more individuals can be defined as heroic. This is Mendel’s second novel, rooted in her experiences living in the Middle East, and focusing on the Al-Fakoury family: Mohammed, the authoritative and apparently conservative self-declared head of the family, his wife Fatima, sister and brother-in-law Rana and Hamid, and brother-in-law Ahmed, who chooses to take an active position in the protests. In this remarkably sensitive and intricate book, even the children of the family are carefully developed. The novel motivates its reader to question biases and easy answers, building sympathy for each perspective as the stories of family members unfold and connect.

Mendel thus challenges dogmatism—religious and political—throughout the book. In a recent interview with Lindsay Jones, she noted that a woman struggling to feed her family and maintain a home for her children can be as heroic as a protestor with a placard: “that person is giving over their entire soul for the protection and safety of other people . . . what could be more heroic than that?” Indeed, if the novel has a weakness, it is the ongoing analysis of heroism that seems too explicit in places, especially as secrets involving family members are unveiled. The strongest element is its probing of the web of power within the home, just as significant as the revolution outside its doors.

Sandy Bonny, a Saskatoon-based writer, takes on a personal and intimate glimpse of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in her first novel, Yes, and Back Again. Like Mendel, the connective tissue for Bonny is the house and family—this time in Saskatoon—which becomes a site for both historical and contemporary narratives that are inevitably linked. Alternating between two time periods and families—separating by several generations—this novel engages with multiple fictional genres, including murder mystery and ghost story, so that the reader is drawn to question whether this house is haunted, if only metaphorically, by the family of Cecelia (Celia) Mazer, whose grandfather built it. We learn that Celia’s own mother came from the Red River Metis community, and at some point in Celia’s early childhood simply disappeared. Other female members of the family died of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, as they live in relative poverty and isolation. In the contemporary narrative, Neil Cameron and his partner Tanis take possession of the house, and Neil—who teaches mathematics at a local high school—gets caught up in the mysterious disappearance of two female students in his class. Tanis, meanwhile, hunts through the house and attic finding icons of the past which both fascinate and confuse her; she also develops a relationship with the little girl who plays in the alley between her home and the neighbouring apartment block.

Like Mendel’s book, Bonny’s both incorporates—in the latter, replicated textual artefacts—official narratives, and questions what they hide. Historical papers, news releases, social media comments, only increase the intrigue surrounding the home, the missing girls, the missing mother in the past, and the gaps in documentation. Similarly, Alexis Von Konigslow’s novel links two plotlines centred on 1933 and 2003; the thread of connection is the festival of Passover, and a lodge outside of Kingston, Ontario, that served as a refuge for persecuted Jews. The narrator of the 2003 line, Emily, is a graduate student in mathematics developing her thesis as a study of family connectivity. She visits the lodge to learn more about these connections, but finds more mysteries through missing letters and an initially implausible association with Harpo Marx, the narrator of the 1933 line. What begins as a fairly simple family tree, like Mazin’s list of heroic characteristics, becomes increasingly intricate as she works and reworks the web. The 1933 story focuses on the Marx brothers’ repeated visits to the lodge during a period of social activity and community among North American Jews. Harpo becomes meditative and introspective, often leaving his more extraverted brothers to go down to the dock, where he meets Ayala and her daughter Blima, whom the reader recognizes as Emily’s grandmother in the 2003 narrative. Like Bonny’s novel, this story slips between fantastic, supernatural, and factual/historical connections. The tangible artefact of missing letters becomes the seed of Harpo’s new idea for a movie, but it also holds a mystery that complicates even as it unravels through Eastern Europe before the Second World War.

The retelling of the Passover story becomes another link, reminding the reader—as the characters—that “God gave us selective memory . . . the ability to remember things any way we want…And with that comes the capacity for infinite happiness.” While the reader may not initially feel a fascination or link with Harpo Marx—and other reviewers have noted their ignorance or even disinterest upon picking up the book—the dexterity of Von Konigslow’s storytelling produces a narrative that will not easily be forgotten. In fact, the way all three novels underscore, whet, and feed our fascination with family history, relationship, place, and secrecy—drawing on both the characters’ and the reader’s curiosity, as collaborators in the construction of meaning—marks an extraordinary power in the works of these Canadian writers. Math, the subject of solution, dissolution, and reconstitution, becomes a feature intertwining all three books in surprising ways.

 



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