Beautiful Constraint

Reviewed by Hannah McGregor

Early in Catherine Bush’s Accusation, protagonist Sara and her lover David discuss why so many dictators were also writers. Sara wonders if there isn’t “an impulse toward poetry not only as something potentially beautiful but also controlling, a way to give formal shape to experience, emotion, rhetoric, and so sway people.” This image of language as both beautiful and violent—a “beautiful constraint,” as David calls it—lies at the heart of three new novels by renowned Canadian authors.  Accusation, Bush’s fourth novel, spans five continents as Toronto-based journalist Sara becomes increasingly fixated on Raymond Renaud, a Canadian teacher who has founded a children’s circus in Addis Ababa. Shortly after seeing his circus perform in Denmark and meeting him in Toronto, Sara hears that several of the circus’ child performers have accused Raymond of abuse. She quickly becomes obsessed with finding the truth: “She knew nothing forcertain. It was only an accusation. . . . Yet, as she knew, an accusation, regardless of truth, has its own life when let loose in the world.” The rest of the novel circles around Sara’s need to know for certain what happened, a need rooted in a false accusation from her own youth that continues to haunt her. Travelling to Addis Ababa to find Raymond, she instead uncovers evidence of other aid workers in Ethiopia abusing young boys. When she writes an article further implicating Raymond in the systemic abuse of power amongst international aid workers, he responds with a startling act of violence that calls into question the ethics of representation in both journalism and literature. A story, once told, can have unseen consequences, and doubt, once planted in someone’s mind, is difficult to assuage. Accusation’s refusal, in the end, to let us know whether Raymond is guilty or innocent constitutes the novel’s final statement on the ethical vagaries of language. Words once “released, [go] on uncoiling themselves,” whether they are true or not.

This epistemological instability, how language might honour or betray reality, is also at the heart of Michael Crummey’s fourth novel, Sweetland. The narrator, Moses Sweetland, is a bachelor in his late sixties living off the southern coast of Newfoundland, on a remote island that shares his name. This parallel between narrator and setting is an early sign of the novel’s interest in the relationship between place and self. The government has offered the small community on Sweetland a generous settlement package to relocate to the mainland, with the condition that everyone has to sign on. Sweetland is the only holdout, and as the second half of the novel unfolds, he has faked his own death and settled in to live out his life alone on the island. At first Sweetland reads like textbook CanLit: man versus nature, remote rural setting, lots of references to cod and buffalo. But we are warned that the novel is doing something more when Sweetland’s neighbour Queenie complains about the CanLit her daughter keeps sending her: “Half the books supposedly set in Newfoundland were nowhere Queenie recognized and she felt insulted by their claim on her life.” Meaning, the novel suggests, is a communal activity. In the absence of community, Sweetland—the place and the person—begins to unfurl. The clearest example of this “widening fracture in the world” is Sweetland’s increasing fixation on maps. He begins to pass the long nights mapping the island in his mind, “naming every feature and landmark;” later, trapped by a snowstorm in a remote cabin, he finds a commemorative map of Newfoundland that he sets about correcting, “adding missing names along the coastline, drawing in small islands that had been inexplicably left out.” When he rediscovers that same map, crumpled in his bag, all his amendments are there, with one difference: “Where he expected to see Sweetland there was nothing but blue water.” As representations of his environment become increasingly divorced from his world as he experiences it, his narration becomes similarly unstable, haunted—perhaps literally—by the ghosts of his past. In the novel’s final pages, its earlier attention to regionally specific realism gives way to a surreal dreamscape that blurs the line between Sweetland as place and narrator.

Language is also entangled with identity in Kim Thúy’s second novel, Mãn, named for its Vietnamese protagonist. Mãn is a woman whose world is structured through language, particularly the act of translation. Like the novel, Mãn is multiplying translated and transformed, from abandoned child to beloved daughter to uprooted Canadian bride to celebrated chef. Through language she negotiates the complications of her country’s history, her place in Montreal, and her relationships with her husband, children, and, eventually, lover. The novel is structured as a series of short vignettes, each linguistic snapshot visually framed by a different Vietnamese word and its translation, unfolding a dimension of Mãn’s story through the lens of that word. In “Me Ghe / cold mother,” for example, Mãn contemplates the cruelty of her Maman’s stepmother, noting that “ghe” means both “cold” and “mange,” and wondering “if that mangy mother would have been less bitter had she been called stepmother.” Language becomes not an arbitrary symbol system but a material force in Mãn’s life, shaping how she engages with the world. Ironically, this novel about translation, itself translated from French to English, is also a meditation on what remains untranslatable.

If Mãn struggles with language, committing “millions of errors in grammar and logic, but also in comprehension,” she finds in her cooking a more visceral method of communication. Food lets her build a community in her new country while maintaining ties to the old. She expands the menu at her husband’s restaurant with dishes that remind their diasporic clientele of home; one customer, eating her soup, “murmured that he had tasted his land, the land where he’d grown up, where he was loved.” Food is also what takes her to Paris where she meets the lover who will test her commitment to her traditions and her family. This genre-bending novel, part dictionary, part cookbook, breaks a love story down into the basic units of language, showing how a life can be made or unmade with just one word.

This review “Beautiful Constraint” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 132-34.

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