Ann and Richard live in a Northern Ontario city — he is a lawyer and she an artist who is going through a creative dry patch. They also have a cottage on Lake Nigushi, next door to an Ojibway reserve and most of the book is set in this area. Bemrose establishes the structural elements of his plot early on — the third major character is Billy, the former chief of the Ojibway nation, who has returned after a 10-year absence. That absence was caused by the loss of a native land claim case that he had led; Richard was the lawyer on the case (his first big one) and the two had a falling out when the judgment was delivered. Deeper in history, Ann as a nineteen-year old had a summer affair with Billy (some years before the land claims case) and has never totally got over it. In fact, she took up with Richard because he was “solid” — too solid, as it turns out. He has now gone conventional and is angling for the nomination in the local provincial Legislature riding.
If you have been paying attention to Giller Prize controversy, that summary tells you why The Last Woman missed the Giller list. Juror Victoria Glendinning in her Financial Post column on the experience complained about the common setting and approach of too many mediocre Canadian novels: ” And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)” I didn’t mention in the summary that early in the book we meet Anne brooding in a Muskoka chair at the cottage:
His wife is sitting on the deck overlooking the channel, her arms laid along the boards of a Muskoka chair, her face lifted to the sun. Richard is certain she must hear them (note: Richard is accompanied by their young son) — their outboard racketing down the channel — yet it is several seconds before she turns her head, almost lazily, in their direction. He raises his hand, yet the woman in the deep chair simply goes on looking at them, as if the boat gliding toward her were invisible.
That presages the emotional tension between Ann and Richard, what of Billy? His decision as chief to pursue the land claim was not totally popular with his people; the older ones in particular were quite happy to continue living under the political radar and make do as best they could. In the 10 years that he has wandered, things have become much worse. Clear-cut logging is destroying the traditional environment; Ojibway youth have discovered gasoline sniffing, destroying their chances at any kind of life. Billy has come back with memories of and a desire to recapture a history that he soon realizes cannot be recovered:
After his sister moved out, Billy lived on in the blue house with Matt and Emma. In the winters, they ran a trapline from their cabin at Silver Lake; in the summers, he and Matt did building and repair work at cottages around Nigushi. Working with Matt calmed him. The way Matt took his time when he measured a board or the way he pondered where they should hunt — taking days if necessary, while he watched the weather and the plants, and waited for the right thought, the right dream, to guide him. It drove him wild at first, though in the end he had managed to take something from it — a deeper patience, an alertness that showed him more detail (that twig where a moose had nibbled) than he had known existed.
Devoted readers of Canadian fiction at this point are probably observing: “This sounds like it has a lot in common with Through Black Spruce,” Joseph Boyden’s 2008 Giller winning novel (reviewed here). It is a fair observation and I am afraid that Bemrose suffers in the comparison.
Much of The Last Woman is an exploration of the historical events that produced these circumstances; all competently done, but with few surprises. The links with the present are pretty direct. Just as Ann is becoming impatient with Richard’s “solidness”, the reader grows impatient with the “solidness” of the book. Bemrose is a good writer but the reader does feel like he/she is taking part in a patient canoe ride across the lake (there are quite a few of those in the book, too) rather than being part of a reading adventure.
The Last Woman does speak to some important Canadian and human themes. The situation the Ojibway face in both the past and present tense is a realistic portrayal. The tensions between the three characters are equally real. The problem is that all of those elements are rather predictable. I also suspect the novel does not travel very well beyond Canada, another reason why a three-person jury including both a Brit and an American would find it lacking.
I read The Last Woman in a single day. At 323 pages, that is a testimony to the author’s ability to put together a highly readable piece of work, although I certainly wouldn’t call it a page turner. I’m glad I read it, but for those who need or want to be more selective in their approach to Canadian fiction, I have to say there are better places to turn for the experience.