Archive for the ‘O’Connell, Grace’ Category

Magnified World, by Grace O’Connell

July 8, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

This year marks year sixteen of Random House Canada’s New Face of Fiction program. While Canada’s independent small publishing houses continue to introduce more debut novelists, it is heartening that the country’s largest house (with a number of imprints) remains committed to showcasing new authors. Random House also has an impressive record of success with this program — the first year, 1996, introduced us to Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Gail Anderson Dalgetz and Dionne Brand, all of whom have gone on to international fame. (Click here for a full list of NFoF titles — you’ll be suprised how impressive it is.)

There is no set number of titles each year; the publishers say quality is the determining factor (although one has to suspect economics also come into play). This year, there are only two: Kim Thúy’s Ru (reviewed here some months ago) and Grace O’Connell’s Magnified World.

The defining event of this novel is a suicide: a few months back, Maggie’s mother, who owned and ran a New Age shop selling candles, incense, crystals and the like in Toronto’s tony Queen West district, put some zircon rocks in her pockets, crossed town and walked into the Don River. Maggie, who has taken over the shop, is the book’s first person narrator and her inability to understand or cope with her mother’s act is the dominant narrative thread of the book.

As the novel opens, Maggie finds herself on Queen Street at the front door of the shop (she and her father live upstairs), two hours after she was supposed to open it. She has no memory of anything that happened since she went to bed the night before:

We called it the blackout, like we could have lit some candles and waited it out. The blackout. Your blackout. I wanted to know what had happened in the time I’d lost. I asked Andrew [her boyfriend] and my best friend, Wendy, if they had seen me or heard from me in the missing hours. I went by George’s Diner to ask George if I had come by that night. Wendy and I had been going to the same College Street diner since high school because of George, a handsome first-generation Greek with a perfect profile and short curls that we had both spent our freshmen lectures day-dreaming about. We were all friendly, though we’d never seen him outside the restaurant.

That quote supplies an excellent example of the flavor of the novel as a whole. While the story is told from inside Maggie’s head, there is a lot of Toronto in the novel — one of O’Connell’s strengths is her ability to capture aspects of Canada’s largest city. And the internal focus is not so pervasive Maggie is totally isolated — readers will meet an extensive cast of characters as the narrator struggles to relate to those around her.

The opening pages also obliquely introduce one of that cast who will become more important as the novel progresses:

I went upstairs to my room and closed the door. On the window sill was a card, just sitting there without an envelope. When I picked it up, it was slightly warm.

I’m so sorry to hear of your loss, it said. With love, Gil.

I didn’t remember putting the card there. I didn’t even remember a Gil — was he a customer? A friend of my father’s? It sounded like an old man’s name. Dozens of cards had arrived after my mother’s funeral, mostly politely worded watery-toned notes from my father’s colleagues at the university. This card looked no different except for the pained and jerky handwriting.

That quote introduces two more threads that will continue through the novel. Sometimes Maggie’s mind is completely there (the “upstairs” one) and sometimes (the “downstairs”) it is clouded and confusing — she only remembers distorted aspects of the “magnified world” in which she lives. And trying to fill in the gaps of her mother’s incomplete history (she arrived in Toronto as a young woman of the Vietnam War era from Georgia) will be an important part of Maggie’s journey. She keeps journals about that search, excerpts of which serve as a convenient device for the author to get into the back story.

All of this makes Magnified World a difficult book to review. At each stage, the reader needs to decide which of Maggie’s minds we are experiencing at that point in the narrative — the complete or the confused one. The blackouts continue, so there are gaps for both narrator and reader. We also meet two psychologists, one conventional and one an apparent charlatan (who has his own history with Maggie’s mother) who “professionally” explore Maggie’s confusion. And the reader has three options when it comes to placing the Gil of the mourning card in Maggie’s world when he shows up in person later: he may be real all the time, or sometimes real and sometimes an imagination in her mind (my favored interpretation) or completely a figment of her imagination.

I’ll confess that this did not work for me — indeed, by the midpoint of the book I was seriously wondering if I was simply too old to appreciate the novel. One problem with first person narrators is that the reader needs to feel comfortable inside the individual’s mind (since there is no external context) — I was never there with Maggie (too old? too male? too rational?) so I found much of her experience pointlessly muddled, not illuminating. Another issue is that we can only appreciate other characters as the narrator sees them — which, particularly when the narrator’s confusion is a central aspect of the book, inevitably makes them one dimensional.

I suspect that readers who are young enough that they are still trying to sort out their own current circumstances may find much more in the novel than I did. By way of contrast, I would offer the example of Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, a first person narrator of my own generation, looking back on his life, whose exploration of his history I had no trouble enrolling in. Many younger readers of Barnes’ novel are frustrated by the unresolved ambiguity of Tony’s memory (I certainly wasn’t — that was the point of the book, I thought); perhaps my problem with Maginified World is that I am simply too far removed in years to engage in her challenge.

I’ve read all the New Face of Fiction titles in the last few years and despite my struggles with this one will continue to do so in the future. The editors at Random House know their business well enough that readers can be confident that chosen books are well-written — and well-edited, a characteristic that too many first novels these days seem to lack. Even when I was experiencing frustration with aspects of Magnified World, I could appreciate that that might be more about me as a reader than it was about the book itself.


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