Faces of Desperation

Reviewed by Karen Charleson

From a silent, traumatized nine-year-old boy, to an artist addicted to gambling, to a still-young career woman diagnosed with inoperable brain tumours, the main characters in these three Canadian novels are desperate. I am reminded of the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Each of these novels deals with some sort of sadness and grief. Centred in the individual, and radiating out into the family, it is this unhappiness that characters weave their ways through to attain measures of redemption and satisfactory living.

In the English translation of Stéphane Larue’s award-winning novel, The Dishwasher, we meet a gambler who has spent his rent and an advance on an uncompleted graphic design project. He is forced to take a dishwashing job at a posh Montreal restaurant in an effort to avoid the inevitable. In Amy Spurway’s Crow, we meet Stacey—or “Crow,” as she is nicknamed—who returns home to Cape Breton to await her own death. In the process, Crow wants to settle old scores with family and friends. In Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s Claremont, we meet a child who refuses to speak after witnessing his parent’s murder-suicide. He is placed into his perfectionist aunt’s home at first; then he is moved into his carefree, messy aunt’s home on Toronto’s Claremont Street.

The Dishwasher veers between hope and crushing defeat. “Don’t do it,” I cried more than once while urging the narrator away from the gambling machines which I had already learned he cannot resist. By the end of the novel, the narrator is under the strict guidance of a close relative, and has finally stopped gambling. Despite his personal growth, however, I remained not entirely convinced that he will be able to maintain his abstinence.

In Crow, Stacey Fortune abandons her career in Toronto upon being diagnosed with brain tumours, and returns home to her mother’s small trailer in rural Cape Breton. She plans to write a memoir of family secrets and “dirt.” Instead of recording, however, Stacey finds that she needs to learn to live anew with her mother, family members, old friends, and old partners. It is in these revitalized relationships, rather than in any kind of retribution, that Crow finds her peace.

In Claremont, a dysfunctional family struggles with grief and guilt. Not only has a sister died, but she has been killed under horrible circumstances that may have been preventable. The surviving siblings are left to care for their dead sister’s traumatized child. Von Carolsfeld creates a story of an imperfect family with believable problems coming to terms not only with a death, but also with the need to heal—for the sake of young Tom and for their own futures.

Of these three novels, The Dishwasher is by far the most substantial and intense. It is also the most autobiographical. Larue’s knowledge of the nature of addiction, and the anguish that is the by-product of addiction, has a depth and reality that can probably only be achieved through personal experience. In comparison, Crow and Claremont are leaner and less complex stories. They are not, however, less important. The shorter novels provide less opportunity for critical thought, yet they still manage to provoke reflection while creating a lot of enjoyment.

There is dark desperation and there is the lightness of hope in each of these Canadian family settings. Hope resides within each uniquely unhappy family in each different location. In the loud, chaotic, often depressing urban nightlife of Montreal, in the harshly bleak winter of rural Cape Breton, and in the specific neighbourhoods of Toronto, I see, hear, taste and feel. I share in the struggles and aspirations of wildly different Canadian families, and I am a satisfied reader.

This review “Faces of Desperation” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jul. 2020. Web.

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