The annual $50,000 Seal First Novel Award can be a blessing and a curse for an author. It takes a story of genuine craft and innocence to make the reader stop adding up the $75 metaphors, and this year’s winner, The Ivory Swing, succeeds. It turns the shopworn plot of Canadians in exile into a romantic, intelligent, well-written first novel, and for that combination alone it deserves a prize.
Juliet and David are “university people” from a small Ontario town bearing a strong resemblance to the author’s home town of Kingston. When David’s research takes him to India for a year, Juliet goes with him, bringing along their two children and her own consuming project, the conflict between married love and freedom. “Independence smoldered like sulfur in her gut, but domestic commitment was in her genes, heavy as lead.” Prose like this runs perilously close to Ladies’ Home Daydream at times, but for every lyrical excess there is a leap of imagination and a
commitment to sensual prose that makes the lapses forgivable (even the unforgettable phrase, “the pterodactyl will swoop out from the fen of the libido”). The humid language also suits the setting: a still, hot, dusty village in southern India, where “nonentity is contagious.” Before long, the perfumed prose effectively casts a spell through which we watch a woman in a dream, dreaming of reality.
Juliet’s fantasies are the old standbys—an apartment alone in Montreal and a former lover named Jeremy (former lovers invariably have phoneysounding names). But the dream she ends up living in is a beautiful house under coconut palms. Her landlord considers it rude to refuse servants, so she reluctantly accepts one houseboy. As she tries to make the boy part of her family, Juliet sees that the freedom she imposes on him sometimes makes him suffer more than the rules he understands. In India the notion of independence is more complicated than simply refusing to act like a faculty wife.
All around her, Juliet sees women “who weave with love and resentment the silken cages of their lives.” One of them is a beautiful young widow, Yashoda, who longs to escape her forced mourning and vigilant family. Yashoda flutters in and out of the Canadians’ lives like a gorgeous trapped bird, reminding Juliet of her old daydreams and giving her husband some new ones.
At home in Canada Juliet drifted inside her own arguments about freedom. But in India the question of freedom becomes palpable; she lives with a servant boy who cannot change his caste and she watches Yashoda struggle, like herself, to slip free of her family’s embrace. In a number of similarly concrete, graceful ways, The Ivory Swing asks the questions that novels used to ask. How are we to live? Which rules deserve to be broken and which protect our bonds? Especially, how do passionate people stay married?
The closest thing to an answer is offered in the title, which refers to an ivory carving of the Indian gods Radha and Krishna, tangled in an embrace on a swing that is frozen in mid-arc. This is how Juliet sees her own “sprained life,” caught between poles and going nowhere—or in perpetual motion, depending on your point of view. The ending is rather dark, but the commitment to the ambiguities involved is honest and affecting. MARNI JACKSON
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