Allusions and Illusions

  • Miriam Toews (Author)
    Irma Voth. Knopf Canada
  • Angie Abdou
    The Canterbury Trail. Brindle & Glass
Reviewed by Kathleen McHale

Angie Abdou’s The Canterbury Trail features the inhabitants of Coalton, a mountain town and tourist destination where ski skills and status as a local garner social capital. Abdou writes about the small details of small-town life and produces a zippy, readable novel in the process. The novel features an eclectic group of snow-worshipers that embarks on a backcountry ski trip in an effort to capitalize on a rare deluge of spring powder. Abdou brings the outdoor enthusiasts together for a weekend in a no-frills cabin where they entertain themselves with a storytelling contest. The gang includes such characters as Janet, a mother-to-be who is (perhaps justifiably) cautious about the dangers posed by the great outdoors; Loco, a local who boasts about his Coalton roots; Shanny, the rad chick; and Alison, a former journalist and ex-Torontonian who feels out of her depth as the only novice skier in the bunch.

With each new chapter, the characters take turns narrating, and each section begins with a charming illustration, often accompanied by a clever how-to manual (How to Immerse Yourself in Ski Culture, for example). These chapter headings establish a playful tone, which Abdou maintains as the novel progresses. Though the allusions to Chaucer can seem heavy-handed at times, overall they manage to complement this lightheartedness, and, lifting the The Canterbury Trail into metafictional territory, contribute to the novel’s self-consciousness about itself as a form of media. The ski bum Loco, for instance, considers the disparity between the group’s chaotic, chilly venture up (and down) the mountain and the sleek video they might later produce as an account of the weekend. In the video, he imagines, the skiers would be luminescent, superhuman, godlike, unbound by the laws of gravity. In this way, the novel examines the manipulations often employed by art and media, noting the temptation to gloss over grittier details in favour of a polished, coherent narrative. The urbanite Alison serves as a vehicle for further metafictional exploration. The former journalist has a habit of mentally generating catchy headlines that capture the spirit of the outdoorsy goings-on. Her brain [spews] forth a stream of headlines until a companion’s ski accident leaves her unable to imagine their tragedy on the cover of The Globe and Mail. In the face of near-disaster, Alison’s headline fountain runs dry, highlighting the shortcomings of media when it comes to capturing the complexity of real-life experience.

Abdou, for her part, does not shy away from including seemingly unsavoury details. Instead, she realistically describes the physical discomfort and occasional tedium that are necessary ingredients of most adventures. Claudette the Canadienne suffers from marital frustration, which she somatizes into the physical pain of heartburn, while Alison’s fear and fatigue manage to overshadow her enjoyment of the ski journey. Abdou also explores each character’s prejudices and insecurities by exposing the occasional pettiness of group dynamics. Given that the adventurers constitute a complete cross-section of Coalton society, tensions are bound to arise between skiers and boarders, nature-lovers and city-dwellers, husbands and wives, fathers and sons. Abdou’s talent lies in her ability to capture the complexity of these relationships without sacrificing any of the sporty, snowy suspense of exploring the great outdoors.

Like The Canterbury Trail, Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth features a small community, but the similarities between the two novels end there. In a Mennonite community in Northern Mexico, the nineteen-year-old Irma struggles to keep her loved ones both safe and close. Irma, whose candid voice chronicles the pain of missing her absent husband and the grief of living apart from her family, is thoughtful and curious, and though introverted, never ponderous. When Irma begins working as a translator for the enigmatic, temperamental director Diego Nolasco, who has chosen Irma’s community as the setting for his film Campo Siete, the novel begins to unravel slowly; the first two-thirds leisurely explore Irma’s role on the movie set, the beginning of her marriage, and her relationship with her family, especially her wholehearted attempts (and failures) to understand her rigidly moralistic father. This initial section of the novel develops gradually, but many questions arise throughout to capture the reader’s curiosity, and these mysteries prevent the novel’s pace from lagging.

The narrative’s deliberate progress is disarming; I found myself lingering on every page, often flipping back to consider a connection to another fragment of dialogue. The book invites a slow reading, and its lengthy sentences, often unbroken by punctuation, demand to be parsed and considered carefully. I hate stories . . . announces Diego, the director, whose films focus on emotion in lieu of action. They scare me. They freak me out. They’re dead. I want emotion, the feeling, the emotional resonance of the person . . . I hate narrative. This declaration also seems to serve as Toews’ manifesto: the novel’s gradual development clears a space for a focus on raw emotion and direct experience, and Irma manages to remain engaging without relying too heavily on action or suspense. Nonetheless, the novel’s tempo does hasten, almost unexpectedly, when Irma and her sisters move to Mexico City. The change of pace is surprising but not unwelcome, and this snappier second component of the novel provides a pleasing compliment to the unhurried first section.

Irma’s journey begins with an earnest account of her last encounter with her husband. As ever, her tendency to ask the wrong questions complicates her interactions; her questions are too honest, too direct, and somehow not designed for everyday use. From here, Irma’s narration guides the reader backward in time through her still-potent memories, and then forward to her plans and hopes. When the director Diego asks her to keep a diary of the shoot, we observe the apparently natural transition and translation of Irma’s innate curiosity into an urge to write. From here, the text of Irma’s first-person narration is occasionally inlaid with the similarly matter-of-fact, but somewhat sparser, text of her diary. In a tender moment, Irma’s mother instructs her daughter to just begin, and these words later inspire the budding writer when stunting self-criticism threatens to overwhelm her.

Observations about art, often specifically about the practice of writing, find their way into the novel. Art is a lie, says Irma’s father. As a whole, the novel enquires as to whether art is a worthwhile pursuit. Irma grapples with understanding the dynamism and importance of words and writing, but remains open to the power of other mediums. In an effort to convince Aggie, her irreverent and headstrong younger sister, to stay put (and stay safe) while she searches for a job, Irma implores, I understand your opinion of my words is that they are just words, and in so many ways but not in every way you are absolutely correct. . . . My words aren’t only words. They’re pictures and tears and imperfect offerings of love and self-inflicted shots to the brain. Toews reminds us throughout the novel that words can transform into images, films may be composed of raw emotion, and dancing the tango might just mean losing everything you own, because art, emotion, and life’s quotidian happenings are all fluid and flexible, so that no border exists between art and real life to keep the two from interacting and occasionally colliding. The energy of trauma, which can offer a choice: paralysis or the psychic energy to move forward, in Irma’s case transforms her, and eventually leads her back to her immeasurably flawed but irreplaceable family. Understated, powerful, engrossing, Irma Voth merits multiple readings.

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