“she was owed a party . . .”

  • Lisa de Nikolits
    West of Wawa. Inanna Publications and Education
Reviewed by Alexandra Gilbert

The premise of West of Wawa seems promising: a young, disillusioned Australian woman goes on a journey across Canada to find herself and make peace with life. Canada’s vast expanses of prairie, forest, and mountain provide ample opportunities to travel to remote places and reflect on one’s journey through life. However, despite its plausible storyline and setting, West of Wawa falls significantly short of its potential as a novel.

The most significant issue is with Benny, the main character who quits her job to travel by Greyhound bus from St. John’s to Vancouver. Unfortunately, a protagonist has to have strength of character in order to be sympathetic, and Benny is not. At the slightest sign of impending discomfort or emotional difficulty, she collapses. When she arrives in St. John’s, she has a moment of panic because of the unstructured time spreading out in front of her, and her response to this situation is to “[m]edicate to the gills and pass out.” She does this with increasing frequency, even after a semi-epiphany in the Yukon.

De Nikolits trivializes prescription drug abuse, as does the publisher (Inanna), who describes Benny as a “road warrior with a backpack of opiates” on the back cover. Benny takes codeine as well as Xanax, Lorazepam, sleeping pills, and even Percoset with such regularity that with her small frame and diet of salad and chewing gum, she would be a full-blown addict within months. She would not be able to take her usual cocktail of meds and then go for a ten-mile bike ride around Churchill, Manitoba. The narrator’s tone is alarmingly casual whenever Benny “crunches” a codeine tablet. And why does she chew something that would taste like aspirin? Characters are not people, but they have to be believably human.

Further, Benny does not seem to have a real reason for her reliance on drugs. People who abuse substances typically have underlying issues that are triggered by an event. In Benny’s case, she received one negative review of her first art show (among many positive ones), and her marriage ended because it turned out her husband was gay. But she does not reveal anything sufficient to explain her reaction, and her own excuses are insufficient.

In her professional life, Benny is initially presented as intelligent and relatively educated. However, a dialogue in Juneau with Phoebe, one of the many random travel friends she meets and discards, reveals implausible ignorance:

“Surely that must be a joke,” Phoebe said, frowning. “I can’t see them really selling reindeer meat. Do reindeers [sic] even exist?”
“Maybe moose are reindeer?” Benny offered.

Although West of Wawa is supposed to be about “feminist learning” (Inanna), de Nikolits has done a disservice to women in general. And for the record, moose are not reindeer.

This review ““she was owed a party . . .”” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 155-56.

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