Books

A HEAD START ON AUTUMN

The publishers' tactic pays off

BRIAN BETHUNE September 6 2004
Books

A HEAD START ON AUTUMN

The publishers' tactic pays off

BRIAN BETHUNE September 6 2004

A HEAD START ON AUTUMN

Books

The publishers' tactic pays off

BRIAN BETHUNE

FALL REMAINS the main book season in Canada, but every year publishers push at the front end, hoping that an August release will gain reader attention for a few works they fear would be lost in the later crowd. The gambit seems particularly worthwhile this year, with fall set to be dominated by blockbuster non-fiction ranging from Greenpeace, Rex Weyler’s history of Canada’s iconic environmental organization, to a host of prominent memoirs, including Peter C. Newman’s Here Be Dragons. And the books

themselves are among the season’s best. There is an elegiac quality to Beth Powning’s writing, derived from her immersion in the rhythms of the natural world. It shows in all her non-fiction works, from the text that accompanies her photographic celebration of her New Brunswick farm to Shadow Child: An Apprenticeship in Love and Loss, Powning’s haunting 1999 account of her stillborn son. Few Canadian writers so stress the ties that bind a life lived to the place where it’s

lived; Powning’s central artistic concern, both as photographer and writer, has always been to locate herself—and her characters—along the great chain of being.

That emphasis serves Powning well in The Hatbox Letters, her debut novel at age 55.

Two parallel stories run through it, “one completely made up,” says the author, “and one not.”

Even the fictional tale is grounded in the details of Powning’s life, revolving as it does around a rural New Brunswick woman in her 50s. But while the writer’s husband, ceramics artist Peter Powning, is very much alive,

Kate Harding is a shattered widow whose painter husband dropped dead of a heart attack before her eyes.

More than a year after Tom’s death, Kate remains adrift. She obsesses over books like Isak

Dinesen’s Out of Africa, “evocations of places that are so deeply experienced that every part—trees, wind, mountains, sky— becomes vivid, distinct, imbued with a sense of eternity.” At the same time, Kate resents that her own familiar landscape has carried on as always through four full seasons, indifferent to the comings and goings of transient humans. The thread that connected her life to her place has snapped, and Kate cannot see how it will ever be rejoined.

Not, that is, until her sister brings her nine antique hatboxes filled with letters and journals rescued from their family’s 18th-century Connecticut home. Or rather, Powning’s New England home, inhabited by her ancestors since 1797, for the tale of domestic tragedies and joys told by those records is The Hatbox Letters' factual story. The old house has always symbolized to Kate her grandmother’s unconditional love and acceptance. When she learns that Hetty was not supposed to marry her grandfather Giles—he was originally engaged to Hetty’s vivacious sister, Jonnie—Kate starts to come out of her sorrow. Reassessing her adored grandparents in the light of this startling revelation, she comes to realize that love is as much willed as experienced,

and begins to see the possibility of a new life for herself.

Nothing much happens in The Hatbox Letters, a quiet story full of quiet ironies. One is unintentional, the contrast between the obvious pains Powning has taken to get right what really matters to her, the details of private history (food, entertainment, family life) a century ago, and her errors in public history (starting the First World War two months early). But there is also the way Kate cheers on the unfolding courtship of Giles and Jonnie, even knowing that their marriage would have erased her from existence. And she is also acutely aware that, given the social mores and essential decency of everyone involved, there could have been only one reason why the couple didn’t wed. When Kate reads Giles’ first

THE SEASON’S EARLY CROP

THE HATBOX LETTERS By Beth Powning; Knopf $32

BEDLAM By Greg Hoiiingshead; HarperCoiiins $34.95

Í THE NINE PLANETS By Edward Riche; Penguin $34

worried mention of Jonnie’s illness, she shuts his diary, knowing what’s to come.

As a novel, The Hatbox Letters has flaws beyond sloppy chronology. The introduction of a secondary character—meant, the author says, “to avoid the trap of writing about a woman sitting in a house, pondering her fate”—jars the reader more than it does Kate’s fragile sensibilities. But as a study in grief, a subject Powning knows all too well, the novel offers a remarkable portrait of a woman who fears that losing her grief will also strip her of her last, tenuous connection to the past.

In contrast to Powning’s book, quite a lot happens in Greg Hollingshead’s Bedlam. Set in the years following the French Revolution, primarily in the notorious London madhouse of St. Mary of Bethlehem—from

which we ultimately derive the word bedlam, meaning a place or state of utter confusion— the novel unfolds from the perspectives of three real-life characters. The central figure is tea merchant James Tilley Matthews, one of the most famous paranoid schizophrenics in history, thanks to hospital administratorjohn Haslam, who in 1810 published Illustrations of Madness: Exhibiting a Singular Case of Insanity about Matthews, the

ARTISTS empathize with the mad, in part because they like to think of themselves as mad, albeit in a safe way

first full study of a psychiatric patient. (Haslam and Matthews’s wife Margaret are the other sides of the novel’s triangle.)

Even allowing for Hollingshead’s artistic bias—artists almost always empathize with the mad, in part because they like to think of themselves as mad, albeit in a safe, touched-by-the-hand-of-God way—Matthews emerges as a sympathetic and fascinating figure. Paranoid schizophrenics often believe that outside forces are responsible for their delusions, but who their tormentors are and how

they exert their influence is culturally specific. In the 20th century, radio waves were the commonly cited means, while popular agents included the CIA, aliens and the

Vatican. Matthews, intelligent and sensitive as he was, had no such means of invisible communications at hand to fire his imagination.

To explain what he called his “torture at a distance,” Matthews seized upon his era’s new, mysterious and vaguely menacing technology: the mechanized textile looms of the early Industrial Revolution. He believed that he was controlled by an “air loom,” powered by mesmerism and animal magnetism. (In contemporary Paris, Austrian physician Franz Mesmer was preaching the medical benefits of hypnotism and iron magnets.) The air loom was operated by Jacobin revolutionaries and other enemies of peace between England and France.

Hollingshead, a Governor General’s award winner (The Roaring Girl, 1995) and Giller nominee (The Healer, 1998), handles his

first-rate raw material with verve and sensitivity, and renders it in a highly readable mock 18thcentury prose. Bedlam brings to mind that even paranoids have real enemies, as Henry Kissinger

famously said about Richard Nixon, and Matthews, a republican sympathizer who goes to Paris on a self-appointed peace mission, makes several in high places. There are more dangerous, if less naive, madmen freely roaming the streets of London while he languishes in the asylum. Some of them even work for Bedlam, including the ambitious and cynical Haslam, who believes that “theories about madness are another form of it.” Haslam, in fact, is more tormented than the gentle Matthews, but not beyond redemption. During the course of their long relationship, the physician receives more healing from his patient than he gives in this beguiling and thought-provoking novel.

It is true that comedic writers, as CBC radio host Bill Richardson once remarked, are “always seated below the salt” by critics. (Richardson, whose Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1994, knows what he’s talking about.) But Newfoundlander Edward Riche, a very good—and very funny—writer, is starting to attract the accolades generally accorded more serious authors. His fine first novel, Rare Birds (1997), which became an equally excellent film starring William Hurt (Riche wrote the screenplay), poked relatively gentle fun at all kinds of deserving targets, including birders, a group the rest of us tend to consider harmless, even lovable, crazies. But Riche’s new novel, The Nine Planets, is in a whole

other cosmos, a satire more A Modest Proposal than Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

His main protagonist, Marty Devereaux, hates everybody and everything. He’s saved from

being completely insufferable only by his courage in saying nasty thoughts out loud and the wit with which he expresses them. Marty, the co-founder of a successful St. John’s private school, understands the business of education very well. He knows his school thrives on its posh reputation, rather than its achievements. And Marty wants to cash in by launching a chain of brand-name private schools. His reach is well beyond his grasp, though, and the result is humiliation, heavy drinking and ever more viciously amusing comments about the universe around him.

At the same time, Marty’s egocentric orbit intersects with several others’ including a disastrous new lover, her husband, realestate sharks—and his 16-year-old niece Cathy, easily his match for acidic commentary and negative energy. Her parents, who think that educator Marty must be a teen expert, want him to help them connect with their difficult daughter. They don’t seem aware that Cathy considers Marty “an unbelievable tool” or that her uncle especially despises young people. But surprising things happen—not the least, for this novel, is a glimmer of hope—when Marty and Cathy collide. There is something not just darkly comic, but laugh-out-loud funny on most pages of The Nine Planets, and it’s often found within moments of sharp insight. That’s a rare and beautiful combination, one that puts Riche near the head of the writers’ table.