Perfecting Paperback – Apr 1 2009
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Quill & Quire
Toronto writer Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s second novel pivots on the character of Curtis Woolf, who flees his New Mexico home for Ontario, where he establishes up a religious commune known as the Family. Years later, Curtis’s lover, Martha, finds his gun and sets out to uncover the truth about him. This premise seems different from regular CanLit fare, and even sounds promising. Martha retraces what little she knows of Curtis’s assumed past as a draft dodger, crossing over the border into the U.S., where she follows his long-abandoned Mormon roots to his hometown. She encounters Hattie, the mistress of Hollis, Curtis’s father. The older woman shelters Martha, though Hattie’s illegitimate sons, men riddled with old wounds and grudges, believe her presence will pry open a nasty, 30-year-old can of worms, one which includes murder. All this should provide a delightful, squirmy mess in which to explore themes of devotion, betrayal, and reckoning. But from the outset, Kuitenbrouwer’s writing style is clearly unlike that of her well-crafted debut novel, The Nettle Spinner. Here, a heavy-handed, untamed prose subjugates the story. The overwriting disrupts the flow, as do the preponderance of passive verbs and rambling inner monologues. Passages with abrupt point-of-view shifts, awkward descriptions (“Colm’s corneas were like tunnels”; “His eyes were caked in sadness”), and pretzelled sentences (“There were all these things in the look she gave Martha, and by this look Martha was again made aware of that which she did not want to be made aware of”) intrude and confound. Dialogue rarely gels, rings true, or enlightens; sometimes it’s tough just to tell who’s speaking. Perfecting certainly is different. However, the ideas that manage to surface through the tangled prose – the ripple effects of abuse, war, fear, religion, guilt, love, and redemption – soon lose out to the effort required to navigate the writing’s bizarre overkill. Martha inadvertently sums up this problem when she asks, “Who can say what truth is?” A variation of this question preys on the reader’s mind: Who can say what this book was meant to be? In the end, the only thing that lingers is its exasperating imperfection.
"Perfecting has my vote for most compelling read of the year." — George Murray, The National Post (2013-01-11)
"My favourite book this year was Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's Perfecting. I loved it because it was different; different from other books I've read, different from the "typical Canadian novel" many people seem to hold in contempt. I also loved it because it was chock-full of symbols and I've always been a fan of symbolism." — Mélanie Grondi, Rover (2013-01-11)
"A powerful story, brilliantly told, and it surprised me from its opening page to its closing words. It's all I want in a book, and I'm grateful that I didn't miss it. You shouldn't, either." — Robert J. Wiersema, Edmonton Journal (2013-01-11)
"As difficult as Kuitenbrouwer's plots are to diagram, her main project to date is crystal clear: exploring the radiating effects of violence. . . . Brava!" — Ariel Gordon, Winnipeg Free Press (2013-01-11)