From a Distance

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

We most often think of geography when we hear the word distance. We think of kilometres, cities, provinces, Canada itself, all seven thousand-plus kilometres coast to coast. But there are many other ways, more intimate and more difficult, that we can measure distance: distance from our cultures, our families, our lovers, our pasts, our shared histories. It’s these kinds of distances that resonate with us in a profound way; distance is universal.

In Between, Angie Abdou explores the distance that Vero Nanton feels from the life she once knew. Vero and her husband, Shane, have moved fully into adulthood as homeowners, parents, and participants in careers. Vero says, early on, that her life has been hijacked, and it’s this hijacking that amplifies the distance Vero feels from herself and her marriage, and that ultimately propels the Nantons to hire a nanny. Ligaya arrives from the Phillipines, and Vero hopes that this will be the answer she needs to right her world; however, Ligaya’s presence only tilts their unrecognizable lives into a new and ever-more precarious position.

Abdou excels at revealing the depths of Vero’s unhappiness, making her flawed but deeply, satisfyingly human. Overwhelmed by her daily life, Vero stages a faux-suicide attempt, hiding in the pantry with scrawled verses she’s titled A is for Asylum: A Mommys Alphabet. It’s wrenching to read, but pinpoints Vero’s need for her husband to understand the depth of her depression, of her floundering in her own life:

B is for the breakdowns
Mommies sometimes have to fake.
Sadly it
s the only way
ll ever get a break.

The novel follows Vero and Ligaya in alternating chapters, their experiences and pasts acting as foils to one another. The alternating perspectives work well, and the first third of the novel sings with tension. The novel takes a sharp turn, however, when Vero and Shane impulsively decide to take a vacation at a swingers resort; this experience affects the rest of the novel, both in terms of the Nantons’ relationship, and their relationship with Ligaya. The trip seems to come out of nowhere, and does not seem to reflect the characters we have come to know by this point. Here, distance between Vero and Shane is amplified, and many of the scenes are awkward and unbearable. This section, however, did not feel warranted by the previous narrative, but rather felt more like a necessary plot point to achieve the ultimate end to their stories. Regardless of this, though, Abdou’s writing remains strong and captures the experiences of two very different women. Vero and Ligaya are not always likeable, but they are believable; Abdou fearlessly tackles privilege and Vero’s very apparent discomfort with her own.

Doretta Lau also uses the concept of distance as a thematic element in her collection, How does a single blade of grass thank the sun? In these stories, we see most frequently a distancing from culture and family, but also distance from careers, from love, from the realities of contemporary life. Lau’s stories are contemporary in both tone and style; she pairs speculative fiction with pop culture, often setting her work in and about Vancouver. Lau’s protagonists are often Asian-Canadians, mostly female, and mostly detached from their surroundings. She tempers this detachment with the use of the first-person perspective, forcing some level of intimacy and connection with the main characters. This choice is effective in many of the stories, but at times creates protagonists with homogenous voices.

Lau is controlled and precise in her use of language, offering shimmering insights into her characters’ lives. In “Little Miss International Goodwill,” eight-year-old Clementine struggles with her identity, depicting herself as Rapunzel or Smurfette in drawings despite her Chinese heritage. She fails at pronouncing words in Cantonese; she is unable to use chopsticks in a way her sister deems correct. At one point, Clementine tries to bleach her own hair, and in a moment of epiphany wonders why “trying to be blonde hurt so much.” Lau’s collection is inventive, with moments of real brilliance throughout; yet the endings often feel forced—sometimes too easy, sometimes too incomplete—rather than revealing the new distances the characters have travelled within the stories.

Distance is more explicitly explored in Lori Lansens’ new novel The Mountain Story. This novel is in many ways a traditional survival/coming of age/loss of innocence story, concerned with Wolf Truly as he ventures up the mountains in Palm Springs, intending to end his life. Wolf is distanced, both literally and figuratively, from his own life, and it is only once he encounters three women on another journey up the mountain, that he sees a future for himself outside of “Tin Town,” the squalid trailer park forever in the shadows of luxurious Palm Springs.

The novel is a departure for Lansens, as her previous work has been more intimate, unravelling personal stories, rather than utilizing the survival trope; however, she uses Wolf’s tragic back story to add emotional depth, and this is where the story becomes vibrant. I was engaged with what brought Wolf to this moment in his life, rather than with the (somewhat repetitive) physical journey up the mountain. The novel uses an epistolary framework, which is mostly unnecessary as the narrative is strong enough to propel the novel forward. Lansens ultimately ties the multiple storylines up perhaps too neatly, but she succeeds in revealing the ways in which we can overcome and reimagine distances, self-imposed and otherwise: at the end of his journey, Wolf says, “Nature’s mirror is sharply reflective and I missed the clarity the mountain had brought me, even the way our plight had defined our purpose.”

This review “From a Distance” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 102-103.

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