(Un)Covering Histories

Reviewed by Olivia Pellegrino

Historical fiction is a genre particularly suited to demythologizing history and submitting it for contemporary reconsideration and re-evaluation. It challenges traditional discourses of history and generates new modes of thinking about the past and its relationship to the present, particularly through its interrogation of the ways in which historical ‘truths’ are constructed. Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us and Margaret Sweatman’s Mr. Jones each broach such thematic issues as the subjectivity of truth and the relevance of looking to the past to create and substantiate identity in the present. Hunter and Sweatman approach history, the archive, and the construction of facts using different narrative techniques and structures, though they both tend towards a similar purpose: to elucidate the relativity of historical truth and explore its associations with the present.

The World Before Us, Aislinn Hunter’s latest novel, follows archivist Jane Standen on her quest to discern the identity of a young woman, known only as N, who disappears from an asylum in 1877. Hunter carefully connects three disparate timelines, linking an intriguing historical narrative to a present-day scholar in search of answers important to her both personally and professionally. Jane’s experiences and research become conduits through which the past expresses itself to the reader, though Hunter does not allow Jane to impart her own story, nor those she works to uncover. Rather, the novel is demandingly narrated by several ghostly figures. While they begin as a perplexing cacophony of seemingly unrelated voices, Hunter slowly and masterfully forges meaningful connections between Jane’s research and the ghostly narrators, revealing a multi-layered narrative that is subtly and effectively pieced together by the novel’s conclusion.

Jane’s role as an archivist is central to the novel how it represents the connection between the past and the present, namely the ways in which Jane desperately grasps at and searches the past to provide her present life with meaning. Jane’s attempts to fill in the blanks in the archive with her own imagination are, as the colourful narrators reveal, often inaccurate. The deliberate disconnections that Hunter intersperses throughout the narrative are especially effective and one of the great joys of this novel. It tends to remain unclear whether any given recollection originates in Jane’s imagination, in the collective memory of the narrators, or from the two coalescing. The fact that there remain important storylines that are never given full closure works well to enhance Hunter’s central theme that history is complex and incomplete; that personal identity and memory are influenced by, though also entirely separate from, cultural and historical memory.

One of Hunter’s several appreciable talents is her ability to imbue her story with exquisite details. She marvellously brings to life settings, characters, and moments of the past and present, linking them through photographs, archival scraps of paper, and small trinkets. The ghosts that follow Jane hope to uncover some triviality about their vaguely remembered lives, generating a poignant story about constructing identity and the importance of stories in defining a person’s life. Hunter’s chronological fluidity coupled with her complex characters, save one or two exceptions, makes for a memorable and engaging read.

Margaret Sweatman’s Mr. Jones is a Cold War psychological spy thriller. Sweatman mimics the milieu of the Cold War, creating a novel that is not packed with action. Rather, her exploration of post-war paranoia and homophobia is terse and often grotesque, relying on the clash between private and political worlds to propel the story forward. Sweatman’s enigmatic protagonist, Emmett Jones, finds himself under the scrutiny of the RCMP and FBI, accused of Communist activity, leading to several tense and palpably uncomfortable scenes that Sweatman depicts with captivating dialogue. Like Hunter’s text, Mr. Jones moves fluidly through time, spanning approximately two decades during which the reader becomes acquainted with Emmett Jones, his photographer wife, and his inscrutable, sometimes unconvincingly characterized daughter. The narrative accompanies these characters through several years, but Sweatman is careful not to allow the reader to form an intimate connection with them. Contrary to Hunter’s technique, Sweatman’s bare characterization consistently keeps the characters at a distance from one another and from the reader. Mr. Jones is thus a novel (and a character) filled with secrets, mirrored by the role that seems to define Emmett above all others: his unrecognized and unrewarded participation in the Bomber Command of World War II.

Some of the most memorable moments in Sweatman’s novel are metafictional and self-referential. Emmett Jones expresses his discomfort with the government investigation into his life, and the limited-omniscient narrator reveals that he feels as if, through interrogation and the stories he tells those investigating him, he is creating a fictional account of his life. Within his statement is the crux of Sweatman’s novel. While Hunter’s Jane Standen seeks to uncover the past and her ghosts aim to discover their memories, Sweatman purposefully muddles the histories of her characters; there is a sense that they know and remember much more than they are willing to share. Consequently, the reader becomes unsure of what is fact and what is fiction; of who in the novel can be trusted. Readers are drawn into the mistrust of McCarthyism that is Sweatman’s topic.

Mr. Jones is dense with allusion and approaching it with at least a cursory knowledge of Cold War politics is beneficial. The novel is considerably well researched and invokes several major political players in the conflict. Sweatman’s scope is international: much of the novel set in Japan and Canada, while the powers and influence of America and the Soviet Union loom threateningly in the background. Sweatman does an excellent job of portraying the political climate of America and Canada during the Cold War, and is also able to delve into the personal fears of the masses, from the atomic bomb to the loss of privacy. Like Hunter, Sweatman finds strength in details. It pays to give each small action in this novel great attention. There is very little in Mr. Jones that is not purposeful or carefully contrived. Sweatman engages with the old adage that history repeats itself, but does so in a subtle way that depicts how the past can be destructive.

Despite Hunter’s moments of flat characterization and Sweatman’s challenging prose, both The World Before Us and Mr. Jones are masterfully composed novels that cleverly present complex chronological structures. Hunter and Sweatman offer readers a chance to reconsider the intricacies of human identity and the way it is shaped by past experience.

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