It’s All Relative, Really

Reviewed by Carly Atkinson

The third novel published by Karen Hofmann, A Brief View from the Coastal Suite continues the uneasy story of the Lund family—introduced in Hofmann’s 2017 work What Is Going to Happen Next. Focalized through siblings Cleo, Cliff, and Mandalay Lund during the period following the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, the work reflects the instability of the time as the protagonists contemplate and contend with personal hardship alongside worsening social and economic conditions, including inflation, soaring housing costs, gentrification, and class stratification. Family and individual trauma are enmeshed throughout the novel with the pernicious material conditions of modern capitalism, and personal relationships consequently are pushed to their breaking points.


As the novel progresses, we find that Cleo, the youngest sister, suffers from a chronic need to measure herself against others. She is a being driven by the conditional; she should update her home, should make time for her children, should acquiesce to the mercurial whims of her husband. As she travels between the usual haunts of privileged women—cycling between her suburban home on the outskirts of Vancouver, spin class, book club, and her well-paid job in the city—she spends her time relentlessly pursuing her vision of orderly, curated control in both her personal and professional life.


Equally class-conscious Mandalay also struggles to fit within the mould that she has constructed. Envisioning herself as part of the project of urban metropolitanism, she subscribes to the idea of the city as an enlightened socioeconomic contact zone, where proximity blurs the boundaries of class, ethnicity, and race. She rails against privilege, projecting her own on to her ex-partner Duane as she attempts to raise their children in “the real world” (192), and registers the requisite whiff of concern over the gentrification of her neighbourhood—before retreating back into thoughts of improved property values and the aesthetic pleasures of modern minimalist architecture.


At the same time, oldest brother Cliff lacks a sense of control over his life. A non-confrontational soul with little confidence in his own business acumen, Cliff allows his younger-brother-turned-manipulative-business-partner Ben to make unilateral decisions that jeopardize their company. Things are much the same at home, where his wife Veronika treats him with contempt for his mounting inability to financially support her endless accumulation of domestic comforts. The push and pull of familial influence in Cliff’s life sweeps him along, leaving him a victim of his own complacency and insecurity.


Each protagonist in the novel labours under the burden of expectation—what they expect of others, what is expected of them, and what they expect of themselves. The static images that the characters hold of themselves and their relations are in conflict with the realities of their lived identities, with the dynamic process of reinvention that life and time inevitably precipitate. The novel’s concern with time, particularly our experience of it, and the relations shared between people beautifully explores how we define ourselves as human beings. The characters in A Brief View from the Coastal Suite are profoundly flawed, frequently frustrating, and utterly compelling.


Light on a Part of the Field, Kevin Holowack’s debut novel, shares thematic elements with Hofmann’s work, including a mutual consideration of family and relationality. Both texts highlight the productive friction generated in human interactions as the protagonists grapple with their individual perspectives and the often conflicting or confounding subjectivities of their family members, neighbours, and acquaintances.


Holowack’s novel parallels the lives of Ruth Windsor and her daughter, Gayle, as the story oscillates temporally between the 1960s and 1970s. In 1960, Ruth is a nineteen-year-old newlywed and soon-to-be mother married to Al, a thirty-two-year-old academic. During an impromptu trip to a secluded tourist spot, taken after a domestic dispute, the pair are struck by lightning, irrevocably altering the trajectory of their lives. Both are unsettled by the experience; Al buries himself in poetry and his job, and Ruth slowly pulls away from the world—disdaining its noise, banality, and profit-driven production. She develops an interest in aesthetics and consciousness that simultaneously drives her actions and troubles her sense of belonging in society.


At the close of the 1970s, we find an isolated and prematurely wizened Ruth, living with her daughters on a hobby farm after the disappearance of her husband. Settled on the periphery of Salmon Arm, “[a]way from people, away from the news, the world” (91), boredom and discomfort colour the lives of both Ruth and her oldest daughter, Gayle. Ruth whiles away her days chasing shadows and working on paintings that she largely refuses to finish while her daughters take care of their few ailing cows. Gayle, now nineteen herself, is a being of expansive longing. She is ever seeking, unknowingly chasing an unreachable horizon, and she soon absconds with a young man who temporarily takes refuge on their farm on his way east.


Of the novel’s many virtues, one of the most compelling is its overt and underlying contemplation of the division between art and labour; by exploring this partition, Light on a Part of the Field artfully delves into and complicates the supposed dichotomies between the internal and external, the public and private, and the material and immaterial. Both mother and daughter are mired in an ideology that attempts to strictly delineate between beauty and the economic and material practices of everyday life. The realm of used cars, quotidian jobs, and small talk about the weather inspires distaste for “real-life things” (104), and the protagonists are presented as raw nerves in a society that attempts to commodify and strictly plot experience; they seem poised, at all times in the novel, on the brink of revolution or self-destruction. In this way, Holowack—much like Hofmann—explores individual relations on a local scale, which serves to produce commentary on widespread social, ideological, and economic tensions.

This review “It’s All Relative, Really” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 7 Dec. 2021. Web.

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