Our house and garden used to belong to a botanist who was fascinated with orphan plants, waifs, like the Kaladar cactus first discovered a two-hour drive west of here in 1934, then lost from view and subsequently rediscovered in 1947, an isolated and vulnerable plant six hundred miles east of its Wisconsin home. The botanist used to sit on the front porch in a white chair and when he went inside he left a sign on the chair saying Open for business. You could bring him any flower or leaf and he would identify it. My study used to be full of plants that he watered in the nude. I am sorry not to have known him, though very probably he was best in small doses, because there are so many things I would like to identify and because the story I’m telling now is another story of discovery and rediscovery, not botanical but personal. Perhaps every family tale falls into this category: 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.
That’s a long quote with which to introduce a review, but I am sure it will come as no surprise to readers familiar with the author’s previous novels — it is a good example of both the distinctive prose and story styles for those who don’t know Hay. She is always careful to supply extensive detail on the physical surroundings of her story. Her major characters usually have a somewhat disjointed past — while they have extensive, comprehensive memories of it, the past always seems to include “something the parent has neglected to tell”. Supporting characters tend to be like the botanist; very good at something obscure, but rather out of touch with the world that most experience as “normal”. Discovery and rediscovery (it is important to include both) are the drivers of the present tense of her books.
Hay is also very conscious of how changing mores and practices affect that process. Here’s another example from the chapter that introduces Anne and the Ottawa valley where she was born and raised:
This part of the world is where I live now. At least in a general way. It contains the stream in which my grandmother washed herself in dumb panic upon finding a large red stain in her underwear — a motherless child raised by a Scottish grandmother who told her nothing. She passed on the favour, telling my mother nothing, even though they shared the same bed, and my mother passed this abashed ignorance on to me, asking me after the fact if I knew what to expect. It’s hard to credit in this age of palaver that people used to say so little about sex. Until it exploded in their faces, that is, at which point newspapers told all.
This novel includes two such “explosions”, both involving Anne’s aunt Connie whose path the narrator is retracing in the present tense of the book. The first took place in Jewel, a town in south-west Saskatchewan, in 1929 where a teen-aged Connie has got a teaching job in a primary school after only three months of training at what were then called “normal” schools. It is here that she first runs into the disturbing presence of Ian “Parley” Burns, the principal of the school. That nickname comes from both his ability in the French language and his devotion to all things French.
The Saskatchewan event involves an incident with an attractive adolescent girl to whom Parley has paid much attention, a disastrous response from her father and, eventually, a fatal fire.
Connie has questions about Parley’s involvement in all of this, questions that return to her eight years later when she is a reporter for the Ottawa Journal (she was never cut out to be a teacher) and is in the Ottawa River Valley town for the funeral of a thirteen-year-old girl who had been murdered while out picking chokecherries. She recognizes Parley at the funeral — he is now principal of the high school there.
That supplies you with an outline of the narrative action that will motivate Connie’s voyage of discovery and rediscovery, a voyage that Anne will repeat decades later. It is important for the reader to realize, however, that this is simply a dramatic framework for the real meat of Hay’s story — the conflict between generations in families, the need to search for what parents have “neglected” to tell their children and the reasons why they made that choice.
Elizabeth Hay’s Giller-prize winning novel, Late Nights on Air, featured many similiar elements and it is only fair to note that novel was not to everyone’s taste. As those longish opening quotes of this review indicate, there is a sedateness and intricacy to the presentation of the story that can go beyond distraction to frustrating opaqueness. I liked Late Nights on Air but I am afraid I found those tendencies to be much more of a problem with this novel. The abuse and murder of an adolescent girl is a not-infrequent device for a novel, as is the generational search for missing pieces — for this reader, it takes more than extended passages of description to carry that kind of story.
My qualification would be that this is very much a novel of “mother and daughters” (and aunts) involving three generations. While fathers and sons play a role in the supporting cast, they are missing from the families of the central characters. That is meant as a backward way of saying female readers might find a lot more to identify with in this novel than this reader did. Hay is a fine writer and I am comfortable with her prose (I liked her story collection Small Change (1997) and debut novel A Student of Weather (2000) even better than her prize-winner) but it wasn’t enough to make this novel a favorite.
(Note for Calgary visitors here: Calgary’s authors festival, WordFest, is featuring an event with both Hay and Miriam Toews, author of the recently-released Irma Voth on Tuesday, May 3 — details are here. Both novels involve family stories about “discovery and rediscovery” provoked by disturbing events and the two authors should have some interesting insights.)