Canadian Herstory

Reviewed by Hilary Turner

In chronicling the lives of single-minded and occasionally ruthless women, these two absorbing novels remind us that the fabric of society depends as much on the private struggles, decisions, and quiet ambitions of women as it does on the more public deeds of their fathers, brothers, lovers, and husbands. Novels that span several generations are especially good at showing the historical weight of the hand that rocks the cradle. In these books, both Catherine Hunter and Mary Soderstrom create plots that trace the social and psychological consequences of the actions of obscure young women. As mothers, and later as grandmothers, the central characters of each story are believably resolute and also believably flawed.

After Light begins in the 1920s, the years of “the Troubles” in Ireland, and ends in or near the present day. In famine-stricken Galway, seventeen-year-old Deirdre Quinn is forced to marry a widower with seven children. Understandably resentful, and in love with another man, she takes the first available opportunity to ditch the kids (at an orphanage), pocket the assets of her accidentally deceased new husband (probably illegal), and reconnect with her true love (handsome, but unreliable). The precipitating event of this lengthy novel is thus that a disillusioned, possibly criminal, and now pregnant young woman books a solitary passage to North America, packing enough ancestral anger in her trunk to frost the psychological socks of several generations of descendants.

Alternating between episodes in the past and action in the present, Hunter explores the laws of emotional cause and effect that determine the destiny of family members. She strikes a balance between the drives and secrets of individuals and the opportunities offered to them by history. War, for example, plays an important role in After Light, first bestowing an education on young Frank, a gifted artist and Deirdre’s only biological son—and then depriving him of his sight and most of his confidence. The irony is compounded by Frank’s inability to provide emotional security for his own two daughters despite his determination to discard the emotional baggage of his upbringing. Family patterns repeat themselves when Roisin, of the third generation, inherits her father’s artistic gift, but is so emotionally battered that years go by before she can gainfully exercise it. Only Siobhan, her sister, seems to combine a powerful survival instinct with an ability to accommodate the needs of others. The prodigal hand of fate seems at last to grow kindlier when Siobhan and her nephew Kyle, the only member of the fourth generation, collaborate on preparing an exhibition of the impressive collections of paintings and drawings left behind by Roisin. Given their legacy of misadventure, this resolution is not unrealistically tidy, but hopeful nonetheless.

A similar struggle against a powerful current informs River Music. The title itself captures the possibility of both acquiescence and resistance to external events. The career of Gloria Foster, a gifted pianist who comes of age in postwar Montreal, exemplifies both. She must grapple with the financial obstacles that stand in the way of her success; she must practise long hours to master her craft; yet she is pragmatic enough to realize that without male support (which must be paid for in kind) many doors will remain closed. Gloria is manipulative, possibly narcissistic; yet she remains admirable in her stoical recognition that the emotional price of success is a price like any other. Her duplicity where men are concerned may have created “a dead spot in her heart,” and it has certainly sown its share of resentment and insecurity among her descendants—and yet she has been faithful to her talent and her art.

Only one regret remains to Gloria at the end of her life. The odds are reasonable that a child she abandoned for adoption at birth may well have become the legendary Canadian composer Claude Vivier (1948-1983). The secret of his existence, which she has kept for many decades, now haunts her as a lost opportunity—not so much for the love of a child or another human bond, but for the companionship he might have given her in the world of music. It is a brilliant touch on Soderstrom’s part to anchor Gloria’s story in historical fact, and to use Vivier’s haunting composition, “Lonely Child,” as a symbolic commentary on the perils of single-minded determination. The resolute are often successful: they get things done—and they end up alone.

This review “Canadian Herstory” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 156-157.

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