Disruptive Alterity and the Uncanny

  • Katherine Fawcett (Author)
    The Little Washer of Sorrows. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Margaret Duley (Author)
    Cold Pastoral. Coles Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gillian Dunks

In its simplest iteration, the uncanny, as defined by Freud, is the familiar made strange. That which is uncanny is disruptive, troubling the stable divide between the mind and the object it perceives. Margaret Duley’s Cold Pastoral and Katherine Fawcett’s The Little Washer of Sorrows link the uncanny to the inner lives of female-identified characters, many of whom are marginalized within the patriarchal power structures they inhabit. In Duley’s novel and Fawcett’s stories, the uncanny becomes a site of resistance, a space in which the irreducible alterity of female lives intrudes upon the heteronormative, classist, and sexist fantasies of femininity that are byproducts of inequitable power structures.

Cold Pastoral was originally published in 1939. Duley’s protagonist is Mary Immaculate, a working-class girl from rural Newfoundland whose early life is dominated by her mother Josephine’s blend of Celtic folklore and Catholic mysticism. After an accident in the woods that nearly results in her death, Mary Immaculate recovers at a hospital in town. In a disturbing turn, Mary Immaculate’s young doctor, Philip Fitz Henry, becomes so entranced by her that he adopts her. The remainder of the novel charts Mary’s growth within the cocoon of Fitz Henry’s privilege, culminating in her begrudging acceptance of Philip as a husband.

Although Duley’s novel borrows its title from Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” it is anything but pastoral—Duley’s Newfoundland is a harsh country governed by capricious, brutal nature. Instead, Cold Pastoral is a gothic novel, attuned to genre tropes such as the female “angel in the house” and “monster” figures identified by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Mary Immaculate’s name alerts the reader to her status as angel—it references a Catholic doctrinal principle that asserts that the Virgin Mary was born without original sin. Yet Mary is more than this: she unites the feminized world of folklore with the rational, empirical, masculinized world of Western medical knowledge represented by Philip; she also troubles the divide between angel and monster figures, taking up the mantle of witch at the novel’s end. Mary insists upon the existence of the “Little People,” the fairy folk of Celtic lore, citing their protection as the reason for her early survival. Mary also maintains a peculiar connection to the natural world, which often manifests as a preternatural comfort with death. In one scene Mary communes with a bird that has a broken wing prior to snapping its neck—an act of mercy. In many others she claims she can hear the voices of her dead friend and her relatives. At the end of the novel, she curses an enemy to hell and succeeds in raising funds for a friend’s abortion, actions historically associated with witchy women. Duley’s conclusion emphasizes the importance of an acceptance of all parts of the self—country ways and town ways, mysticism and rationalism, and the familiar and the strange. Mary is irreducibly other, possessed of excesses that Philip must abide, though they trouble his fantasy of ideal femininity.

The Little Washer of Sorrows, Katherine Fawcett’s debut collection, is situated within the genre of modern magic realism practiced by Jonathan Lethem and Haruki Murakami, among others. Unfortunately, Fawcett frequently struggles with both the magic and realism of her stories. Fawcett’s fantastical elements are either genre tropes, such as housewives who are sexbots, or are unconvincing, such as children who actually die from eating broccoli. Fawcett’s realism is often shallow; many of her characters read like humorous sketches rather than individuals possessed of psychological nuance.

Despite their unevenness, Fawcett’s stories featuring female subjects successfully deploy the uncanny in countering male privilege. For example, “Captcha,” the first piece in the collection, is the tale of Margo, a housewife who, upon discovering her origin, takes five new lovers in a single evening in a bid to achieve emotional independence from her husband. Margo begins to dream after sleeping with other men and women, a sign that she has become fully human. Margo’s dream life, described as an illogical version of her real life, exposes the absurdity of the limited world her husband has given her to occupy. At the end of the story, Margo leaves the confines of the domestic world and gets a job.

The uncanny in Duley’s and Fawcett’s works is potent, for it exposes a core of disruptive alterity in female-identified characters that threatens patriarchal power structures.

This review “Disruptive Alterity and the Uncanny” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015)

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