Histories of Girlhood

Reviewed by Hannah McGregor

The unexpected synchronicity of two of Cormorant Books’ new novels can be summed up in a pair of scenes in which their young protagonists survey other women’s bodies. On a spring day in the late 1950s, twelve-year-old Mary Bradford observes her aunt and housekeeper walking ahead of her: “You couldn’t see much of my aunt’s bottom in her pretty sundress, but Sal’s heart-shaped rump was evident in her worn jeans. . . . I admired their feminine curves, and my own body, with its straight angles, felt like a crude approximation of theirs.” In a parallel scene, set thirty years earlier and halfway around the world, young Kivelli Fotiathi observes the body of her friend and rival in a public bath: “Kivelli looked at her friend’s breasts, large as a pregnant woman’s, then at her round and smooth belly which would never bear children. . . . Despite her small breasts and narrow hips, for the first time in Marianthi’s presence, she felt like the larger woman.” Both of these moments of examination are charged with desire, competition, and fascination, reflecting the ambivalent relationships between women in the midst of a patriarchal society—and both speak to the novels’ fascination with how women come of age in worlds dedicated to often violent forms of masculinity.

Susan Swan’s The Western Light and Tess Fragoulis’ The Goodtime Girl use historical fiction to provide female perspectives on highly masculine worlds—the former small-town northern Ontario in the 1950s, the latter Smyrna, Piraeus, and Athens in the 1920s. In so doing, Swan and Fragoulis demonstrate their young protagonists’ uneasy, contingent relationships to their cultural and historical moments. Both novels examine how young women’s emergent subjectivities are shaped by the contours of the societies in which they are raised, the gendered identities available to them, and the social crises that unsettle these accepted identities.

For Swan’s protagonist Mary, this crisis is the arrival of John Pilkie, “The Hockey Killer,” in her hometown of Madoc’s Landing. Pilkie, who has been deemed criminally insane for the murder of his wife and child, is being transferred to the local psychiatric hospital. As a Madoc’s Landing native, however, he is hopeful that his return will gain him a sympathetic audience in his quest for a case review—something which was, at mid-century, unavailable to convicts deemed insane. Pilkie’s arrival brings into focus Mary’s latent sexual awakening and her dissatisfying relationship with her inattentive workaholic father, a local saint of a town doctor. The doctor’s discomfort in raising a daughter by himself is the narrative starting point of Swan’s earlier novel, The Wives of Bath (1993), to which The Western Light is a prequel.

Swan’s new novel is a tentative, fraught coming-of-age story about the complica- tions of Mary’s desire—for the athletic and charismatic Pilkie on the one hand and her elusive father on the other. Mary’s tangled relationship to these two men is refracted through a small town’s passion for hockey as a dominant form of masculinity, an obsession that causes her father, Morley, to support Pilkie’s quest for a case review in exchange for Pilkie’s agreement to play for the local hockey team that Morley coaches. Swan’s representations of the two male fig- ures emphasize them as opposing poles in Mary’s desire. Pilkie is larger than life, often more caricature than character, a careening pile of masculine stereotypes with his “dapper racoon coat and chocolate-brown Fedora,” his “shiny cowlick” and “manly grace,” and a charming attentiveness to the awkward young Mary (nicknamed Mouse). Morley, on the other hand, is distant and inaccessible, as much for readers as for Mary. He drifts in and out of scenes, disappearing for whole chunks of the novel and rarely speaking or acting for long enough to develop any density as a character. Instead, he is an amalgam of reputation and local legend, like the time he talked Pilkie’s mother through removing her son’s appendix in the middle of a snowstorm. Mary is a character caught midway between childhood and adulthood, and that liminality is expressed primarily through her wavering desires for these two men, and through her narrative’s wavering capacity to represent exactly what it is she wants.

Similarly, Mary’s awareness of the sexual politics around her—of her aunt’s frustrated longing for a newspaper editor who has married somebody else, or the tangle of desire between the housekeeper Sal and three different men, including her father and Pilkie—shifts between childish incomprehension and the retroactive wisdom of her adult narrating voice. On an outing with the adults, she observes the strap of her aunt’s sundress fall down, “exposing half her breast”: “Suddenly, nothing felt the same.” She recognizes only retroactively “that the atmosphere was charged with sexual tension.” When, in the brief prologue, Mary suggests that “the world has changed so much that what I’m about to tell you may as well have taken place a couple of centuries ago,” that irreconcilability of then and now reflects the shift from childhood to adulthood as much as the distance between past and present.

Small-town, hockey-loving northern Ontario in the 1950s is a masculine-dominated world within which Mary and the other women in her life struggle with their agency and their desires. Where Swan’s evocation of a young woman’s coming-of-age is full of a sublimated violence and eroticism, those forces come to the fore in Fragoulis’ account of the 1920s rembetiko scene in Piraeus, a harbour city that saw a massive influx of immigrants in the wake of the Greco-Turkish War. Her protagonist Kivelli is one such immigrant, a wealthy young Smyrnean debutante-turned-refugee in the wake of the 1922 Great Fire of Smyrna. The novel charts Kivelli’s transitions from accomplished coquette to impoverished and traumatized refugee to the famed siren of the Smyrnean diaspora: transitions structured by her shifting relationship to various forms of violent masculinity. As a debutante, Kivelli is a skilled flirt and manipulator of men’s desires, a talent that becomes pivotal to her survival when she is thrust into the world of prostitution, seedy taverns, and manghas, or knife-toting “tough guys.”

As Kivelli’s understanding of the power dynamics around her develops, she discerns the various guises this masculine violence takes on: from the murders she witnesses in taverns; to her rape by her first band-leader; and, more insidiously, to the manipulations and cruelties of intimate relationships represented in the figures of the Smyrniot, a famous songwriter whose popular lyrics are in fact written by his wife, and Diamantis, a charming musician whose charisma masks a deep and misogynistic self-importance. Against these dominant male figures, the developing friendship between Kivelli and Marianthi, the Smyrniot’s un-credited wife, forms the novel’s backbone. This female bond provides a counter-narrative of Kivelli’s growth as she shifts her loyalties from the men who can help her survive to the women who can teach her to forge an identity for herself beyond her culture’s patriarchal strictures.

Culturally, geographically, and historically specific details provide the scaffolding for the narratives of both Swan and Fragoulis. Swan revels in the register of ironic familiarity, layering on references to the newly invented snowmobile and debates about the relative merits of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and Tim Horton’s. In contrast, Fragoulis operates in a more pedagogical mode of cultural explanation, with an appendix defining the Greek terms that litter the novel, many referring specifically to the rembetiko scene (we learn about musical instruments like the bouzouki and the baglamas, as well as the words for wine, hookah, and prostitute). This density of historical and cultural detail stands in marked contrast to the relative thinness of Kivelli as a focalizing narrator. An entirely outward-looking character, struggling to forget her past—“a monstrous task, as ardu- ous as collecting a lifetime’s worth of details in a notebook she intended to destroy”— and to avoid both introspection and intimacy, Kivelli extends that coldness to the reader. Distant, often cruel, always selfish, and remarkably uncurious about the people around her, she provides a stilted perspec- tive through which to encounter this world. Swan more successfully navigates a similar narrative impasse: her protagonist Mary is obsessed with a father who is frequently described but so rarely encountered that he achieves no vibrancy as a character. However, this is an effect that serves to make the final section of the book, with its sudden switch to the present tense, all the more viscerally engaging. Both novels ultimately use their selective silences and limited narratorial perspectives to their advantage, however, charting the deformations and stultifying effects of girlhood and young womanhood in a violent patriarchal culture. Their richly imagined historical settings render these portraits all the more vivid and, ultimately, disturbing for their realism.

This review “Histories of Girlhood” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 186-88.

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