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The Nettle Spinner [Paperback]

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

April 11 2005

In her early twenties, Alma met a tree-planter and fell in love — not with the man but with his strangely romantic work. Now, after several seasons of planting trees out west, the tough-minded hero of Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's visceral first novel has come home to northern Ontario to help reforest the ravaged landscape with a gang of filthy ex-hippies and idealistic students. Baking by day in the hot sun and tormented by mosquitoes and blackflies, Alma and her fellow planters relieve their backbreaking toil at night with sex, dope, and alcohol. But her brief passionate affair with a charismatic newcomer named Willem raises the ire of Karl (whose amorous attentions she has deflected in the past), and he viciously rapes her. Pregnant and alone, Alma flees to an abandoned mining camp where she and Willem once made love. There, with the help of the camp's single weird inhabitant, she constructs for herself and her unwanted baby an increasingly ominous new life.

Weaving together Alma's story with an ancient Flemish folktale about a peasant girl's magical hold over a lustful count, Kuitenbrouwer links the power of narrative with the passion for self-realization. The Nettle Spinner is a gritty, sensuous debut that portrays sex with startling clarity and violence with peculiar tenderness.

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Alma, the narrator of Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's slightly eerie first novel, works as a treeplanter in the bush country of northern Ontario, where she falls in love with Willem, a Belgian working illegally. The story moves back and forth in time between Alma's experiences with the wacky and weird treeplanting crew and her eventual abandonment of civilization for life in a shack where she begins raising her newborn child with the help of Jake, an old trapper/bushman who may or may not exist. There Alma works at weaving nettle cloth in imitation of a girl in a Flemish folk tale, who makes a shroud for the evil Count Burchard. In the tale, which Kuitenbrouwer intersperses in Alma's story, the beautiful young Renelde weaves while the count, who will not allow the girl to marry because he wants her for himself, grows sicker and sicker.

The contrasts in the story are powerful, especially between the peasants of the folk tale, who lived at a time when Europe was covered in forests, and the contemporary treeplanters, who are consumed with making money, sex, boozing, and getting through the work season. Alma's later life in the shack is a strange amalgam of the two, half-dream, half-fable, as if she had stepped out of her life and into a folk tale. The author writes extremely well, and is especially good with smells: "the reek of people coming out of the woods, of soil drying, of dry urine and shit and pesticide and bug-dope, sweat, spit and soap." Her description of the spindly "anorexic forest" of the north is haunting, and, though the plot is as thin as those northern woods, her characters muscle themselves onto the page. --Mark Frutkin


"Brilliantly, this writer illustrates the need for an examined life. Analysis. Accountability. A responsibility that we have to the world around us, to each other, the earth beneath our feet . . . She manages, and often, to knock me off my feet in one sentence flat . . . Unconventional, dense, provocative prose." — Globe and Mail

"Sections of The Nettle Spinner are visceral and nasty and positively hum . . . Immensely satisfying, both as an elaboration of the themes Kuitenbrouwer took up in Way Up, her earlier collection of short stories, and as a contribution to the tradition of sexy Canadian fiction written by women." — Winnipeg Free Press

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful writing Sept. 28 2012
From the beauty of the writing, it's hard to believe this is Kuitenbrouwer's first novel.

This is a fascinating tale, which intertwines the fable of a woman pursued by a feudal lord, with that of a modern woman dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault and the resultant pregnancy. The fable is based on a Flemish and French fairy tale collected by Charles Deulin and which Andrew Lang included in The Red Fairy Book. In it the lord forces the woman who is the object of his obsession to spin the cloth to be used for her wedding shift and his shroud from nettles. As she makes his shroud, however, the lord falls ill and does not recover until she stops spinning. When later he becomes ill again, and so ill he wishes to die, he cannot do so until she finishes his shroud.

The protagonist of Kuitenbrouwer's novel, Alma, is a young woman at odds with modern life who heads out into the north to plant trees with a somewhat motley and rootless crew. There, she is raped, runs deep into the forest and discovers she is pregnant. She holes up in a cabin with a mysterious elderly leprechaun-like recluse, who may or may not be real. He claims, after all, to be a survivor of the Titanic.

Kuitenbrower captures the verisimilitude of camp life in the north perfectly, and it's not a pretty picture. My skin crawled and I wanted to take a bath after reading about the filth, the bugs, the sweat, the dirt, and the back-breaking, repetitive, mind-numbing toil. But her writing is so lovely, and so perfectly suited to the fable-like quality of the narrative, that I was glued to the page.

This is a dreamy, lyrical novel, which nonetheless manages to create a brooding, menacing atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed it and can't wait to see what she'll do next.
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