In this spectacularly subtle novel, Giller prizewinner Elizabeth Hay (for Late Nights on Air) braids family history and natural history, and paints an intricate, beguiling portrait of rural Canadian life in Saskatchewan and in the Ottawa Valley. Spanning the years 1927-2007, it opens up with the brutal murder of young schoolgirl Ethel Wier in 1937 Argyle (Ottawa Valley), a silver pail of chokecherries spilled near her bruised and battered body, half-full, and the other pail empty.
This tragedy unfolds not in isolation, but connects gradually to a confluence of other markers in the history of the Flood family, and the land, and culminates in an unbearably beautiful graveyard scene that encompasses various strands and prongs of multi-generational lives.
"You touch a place and thousands of miles away another place quivers. You touch a person and down the line the ghosts of relatives move in the wind."
Historian and writer Anne Flood takes a back seat in the first two-thirds of the novel, relating the story of her fiercely independent aunt and schoolteacher, Connie Flood, a woman of "unzipped, risqué fun." This also signals the incipient events of Connie's family commingling with Anne's. And at the library, Anne stumbles across some facets of history that have fallen into the crevices of time.
"...a child discovers something the parent has neglected to tell her and brings it into view again, naming it and locating it and establishing its importance." And this is the thematic thrust of the novel.
Sentient life is thickly threaded with the landscape, from the fertile marshland to the ripe vegetation, the narrow dirt roads and woody smells of childhood, the wide flat rocks and wildflowers, the dry and liquid movement of the seasons.
"Here is the country not in its Sunday best, but in its old clothes, unpaved, unfenced, full of character, ungroomed, unvisited, barely penetrable."
Connie is the centerpiece for much of the novel, along with the two male characters that affected her deeply, but in different ways. "Parley" Ian Burns, the principal and schoolteacher that she worked with in 1929 in Saskatchewan, when she was just eighteen, both repulsed and attracted her. She ran into him again in 1937, when she was a journalist in Ottawa. Both times, Parley was close by a tragedy that occurred locally. Nothing to pin on him, except his nature.
"All around her was the curdled essence of this clever man, who found ways to bind you to him, to get you into his pot, where you simmered."
Burns was an inscrutable, fastidious Francophile who was thwarted by his own failed achievements as an actor and playwright, and used his authority and wolfish charm to terrorize the students and magnetize the teachers. Connie sympathized with him at intervals, when he revealed himself in ways that brought out pity and sorrow in her heart. She gave him the benefit of the doubt for a while, and then a tragic incident with a schoolgirl brought about a summary exit of characters from this county.
"The town doesn't exist anymore. It rose overnight from whole grass into wooden sidewalks, railway station, grain elevators, houses, stores, churches, school. Then life rubbed the other way and the pattern disappeared."
Parley had staged a theatrical version of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, with the willowy thirteen-year-old Susan Graves as the lead. He was a brazen, ruthless director, able to bring out the animal, erotic facets of the story, and ripen Susan into a purposeful actress, a "sunned cat" of a Tess--the physical transformation of a young girl. However, he maintained his hold on her after the play, with a staggering crescendo.
Michael Graves--Susan's brother--was a dyslexic student before dyslexia was even recognized, and his broody, outdoor intelligence and artistic sense earned Connie's respect and compassion when he was fourteen years-old and struggling with words. He was one year older than Susan but three grades behind, and his self-esteem was nil until Connie helped bolster his enthusiasm for learning and participating in the classroom.
"A child lies like a grey pebble on the shore until a certain teacher picks him up and dips him in water, and suddenly you see all the colours and patterns in the dull stone..."
As events move along, the intersections of time and tragedies, students and teachers, historians and artists, past and present, and memories and absences fall into place. And always the land. The landscape is an intoxicating character in this book.
Anne eventually becomes a more active character in the story as well as the historian. This is a slow, gradual cohesion, not a narrative meant for anticipation or epiphanies, not a story centered on plot. Characters and themes glue the story together. It is driven by its own poetic odyssey of land and civilization, nature and generations.
I have never been this compelled to quote so much from a book in a review, but as is stated so well in the story, "A sentence bears the weight of the world." Every sentence in this rare and polished story is like a pure, clear drop of water, and every drop spreads into the next, and the next, like a current, forming a flowing river of words that course into the mouth of the story.
It would be impossible to cover this novel adequately in a brief review, as there are several characters, movements and kaleidoscopic shifts and turns that bring the story into focus, and several changes that may or may not appeal to some readers, but amass sensually and delicately. There is more a nexus of theme than of story--it is found within its infrastructure. Perhaps the difficulty in identifying the story's core could be summed up within Anne's reflection that:
"There is such intricate movement in things as they happen and such stiffness and resistance when you go back and try to reconstruct them." However, in Hay's hands, there is no stiffness or resistance; it is full of soul, and the essence of people and the land.
This is a story most appreciated by reading it twice, with a slow, patient, and languid turning of pages. It is a meditative, seeping novel, an exquisite story of the narrowness and infinity of humanity and family, of generations and ties, of obsession and passion, of things unseen but powerfully registered.
There is a deep and reaching symmetry, although it could also be said that it has an asymmetry. That statement and its apparent contradiction isn't a flip remark--its paradoxical implications are felt and can be reconciled after the book is read. Also, much that is oblique comes into view and into the reader's consciousness gradually, or with a multiple readings and reflections.
There are triangles of fate and unrestrained destinies. As Connie asserts, we carry the past forward, even when things and people are obliterated. Take this book to a quiet corner, and experience its unhurried grace. It will marinate in your consciousness and nourish your literary soul long after the book is closed. Hay has constructed a dynamic and towering work that keeps on giving.