Darkness Visible

Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

In both Genevieve Scott’s Catch My Drift and W. D. Valgardson’s In Valhalla’s Shadows, darkness hides beneath the surface of families, communities, and landscapes; it is manifested in both literal darkness at night and the secrets that come to light through the novels. In a Canadian setting, that darkness can often be ignored or even denied, but these two powerful, multifaceted stories transform the reader by making it visible in painful, tragic, and haunting coincidences. Both novels shine a metaphorical flashlight on shadowy characters, relationships, and intergenerational injury, in the midst of a busy metropolis and in the small settlements along Lake Winnipeg, respectively.

Catch My Drift, Scott’s first novel, alternates between the perspectives of mother and daughter, Lorna and Cara, as they share the intense and often distressing experiences of women at various stages of life. The title’s “drift” is the intergenerational spillover of broken relationships, broken dreams, and encounters with love and loss. Lorna works in an office to support her daughter, while her ex-husband, Alex, abandons his parental role for a mission of self-discovery. Alex, who first enters Lorna’s life after her dreams of being an Olympic swimmer are quashed because of a car accident, is frustratingly self-involved already—a one-time actor who lacks focus and seeks Lorna’s assistance as tutor. The Lorna of the past, narrated through individual chapters, sabotages her own chances at success for the sake of romantic love with a man who clearly takes advantage of her. She becomes pregnant, and she and Alex share the illusion of a nuclear family, even while Alex is repeatedly unfaithful and certainly unreliable. The pattern is repeated again in Lorna’s blossoming relationship with her superior at work, an affair that again results in abandonment and loss.

Cara is a fascinating character in her own right, haunted by disturbing behaviours, the response to what she labels “hell thoughts.” When Lorna steps in to encourage Cara to take tennis lessons as a way to focus and build confidence, Cara’s reflection on her increasingly violent and aggressive pattern of thinking is described in a metaphor of a predatory world beneath the surface of her mind: “All my regular thoughts are like little fish, spinning around and minding their own business. But the hell-thoughts are sharks. They eat up everything.”

Remarkably, the mixture of pathos and humour is gripping in these interwoven stories, reflecting the isolation of both mother and daughter, and their inability to share their struggles. While some scenes verge on absurdity, and the characters on one-dimensional caricatures, the overall impact resonates with sincerity. In one particularly moving vignette, Cara develops what she believes is a close bond with her father after he spends time at a commune in Michigan called the “Black River Peace Center.” He helps Cara prepare for her driving test, but inadvertently reveals that this involvement is a way of facilitating his own living arrangement with a woman he met at the Center. When the day of the road test arrives, Alex does not appear to pick up Cara, and Lorna instead takes her to the test centre, the tension and disappointment palpable even while hidden in shadow. As Cara notes, “[n]othing about this day is how it’s supposed to be.” Her behaviour is both believable and heartbreakingly poignant; the interlacing of perspectives invests the reader in both characters’ emotional turmoil. There is, in the end, no grand epiphany, reconciliation, or resolution; there is, however, a redemptive element in these ambivalent and complex relationships.

While Catch My Drift focuses on an urban setting and the deep connections between mothers and daughters, In Valhalla’s Shadows is the legacy of Valgardson’s first novel, Gentle Sinners, which unravels the uneasy coexistence of stiflingly dogmatic Christianity and Norse pagan mythology in Icelandic settlements along Lake Winnipeg. After noting the shadowy figure of Sigfus in Gentle Sinners, and his surprising claim that he finds solace in an abandoned church, I was intrigued to see a similar church on the cover of In Valhalla’s Shadows, along with a mysterious pastor who assures the main character that if his soul did not need healing, “you wouldn’t be here” to fix the damaged cross that adorns the roof. The interlake territory so familiar to Valgardson emerges with more depth and complexity, inviting us into the shadowy world of coexisting sacred spaces, and a blend of intellectual engagement, emotional attachment, and a variety of spiritual practices and belief systems.

Valgardson’s novel is a masterpiece that interweaves the mythic and narrative elements of Gentle Sinners in a more gripping and comprehensive way, with contemporary elements of missing and murdered Indigenous women, PTSD in first responders, Norse mythology and ancestry, and the positive and toxic elements of community. Valhalla’s secrets begin with the discovery—by the main character, Tom Parson—of a dead body on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, but they touch on issues as banal as extramarital flirtation, tension between small-town locals and tourists who feed and exploit the Valhalla economy, the prevalence of addiction, and underworlds of drugs and prostitution. Unlike the contrapuntal narrative of Catch My Drift, this novel is dominated by Parson’s perspective as he seeks refuge from his failed marriage, psychological and physical trauma and distress, career loss, and estrangement from his two children. In interviews, Valgardson stresses that the characters have counterparts in reality, but are never copies and mostly composites based on “a village in my mind . . . made up from a lifetime of experiences.” The uneasy relationship between Icelandic immigrants and mainstream English city-dwellers is combined with the underlying connections between these immigrants and First Nations peoples, who are often linked by hunting and trapping. The novel reminds us of the uneasy redemption of disgraced people seeking a state of grace in the context of pain and loss, and the restorative power of interpersonal connection and mutual acceptance of brokenness. Like Catch My Drift, In Valhalla’s Shadows underscores powerfully the inability of characters to escape their pasts, or even to change lifelong patterns of thought and behaviour, while offering hope of some glimpse of grace in a state of disgrace.

This review “Darkness Visible” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 165-167.

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