Cool Water May Just Break Your Heart

Reviewed by Lindy Ledohowski

Dianne Warren, accomplished fiction writer and playwright born in Ottawa, was awarded the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for her first full-length novel, Cool Water. The novel offers an intimate, one-day portrait of a small Saskatchewan town. The first vignette tells of an epic one-hundred-mile horserace in the town of Juliet’s cowboy past, and then the rest of the chapters follow a cast of characters through one night and day, ending with the second night. The style is sparse and hyper-realistic, and Warren’s Juliet rings as true as Laurence’s Manawaka or Munro’s Hanratty, full of small, mundane details that reveal poignant truths.

The novel details a day in the life of a cast of characters whose lives are intertwined and intermingled, demonstrating the interconnectivity of small-town life and suggesting the interconnectivity of all lives, even those outside the town of Juliet, like the “government officials and environmentalists and representatives of the oil and gas companies” who are all “terrifyingly good at talking” or the “people in Ottawa and Toronto” who might one day have to “pay five dollars for a loaf of bread,” which might, just might make “the politicians . . . come to their senses.” As this day unfolds—Lee out riding a found horse echoing the epic ride that the novel opens with; Vikki and her six children driving from the farm to spend the day in town, even when there are farm chores to be done; Blaine, her husband, working on a road crew and dreaming of Justine the young girl studying engineering at university; Marian and Willard, the brother- and sister-in-law who have lived together for nine years, keeping their growing affection secret from one another; Karla spending her birthday alone, stood up again by her on-again-off-again fiancé, Dale; Lynn worrying about her husband Hank and the name and phone number of an unknown woman written on a scrap of paper in his pocket; Norval and Lila worrying about their pregnant eighteen-year-old daughter; and Joni the stranger who loses her horse and leaves her name and number with Hank—we begin to get a picture of the connected nature of simple lives being lived. And it is in the interconnectivity that the novel encourages the reader to recognize the profundity of human existence.

Every undergraduate writing course begins with some version of the advice to “show not tell,” and Warren is a master of showing. She does not browbeat or bully her readers, but rather lures and lulls us in with her deceptively simple turns of phrase. With an uncomplicated and understated style, Warren creates people so real and rich in seemingly ordinary detail that we barely notice that the simplicity covers a depth of character that is at once both stunning and heart wrenching. In 1954, the American writer Ernest Hemingway was quoted in reference to his novel The Old Man and the Sea as saying: “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.” It is this “truer than true” in the everyday that Warren captures so powerfully.

By comparing Warren’s writing to that of canonical greats such as Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, and Ernest Hemingway, I mean not to gush and offer exaggerated praise, but rather to suggest that Cool Water is a work of fiction that can and will stand the proverbial test of time. It is a work that should be taught and retaught, discussed, and rediscussed. Quite simply it is a work of breath-taking simplicity and breath-taking beauty that may just break your heart.

This review “Cool Water May Just Break Your Heart” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 212 (Spring 2012): 186-187.

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