BOOKS

Domestic dispatches

A new novel dissects family dynamics

MORTON RITTS September 25 1989
BOOKS

Domestic dispatches

A new novel dissects family dynamics

MORTON RITTS September 25 1989

Domestic dispatches

BOOKS

A new novel dissects family dynamics

FAMILY NEWS By Joan Barfoot (Macmillan, 267pages, $19.95)

Novelist Joan Barfoot is one of the best-kept secrets in Canadian literature. While names such as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro invoke instant familiarity among readers, mention of the 43-year-old Barfoot is more likely to pro-

duce hesitation—despite the fact that her novels Abra, Dancing in the Dark and Duet for Three have won her an international reputation. But the publication of her fourth book, Family News, should end Barfoot’s comparative anonymity in Canada. As in her previous work, the author—a journalist in London, Ont.—has made her fictional beat the tortuous politics of the family. The narrator of Family News describes that coverage as “battle reportage: dispatches from the field of domestic flareups”—an apt illustration of the wry, unsentimental quality of the book itself.

Opening each chapter with a newspaper clip of a bizarre domestic event, Barfoot focuses on the relationships among Susannah, a 43-year-old freelance writer; Teddy, her former lover, a self-centred artist and political activist; and Lizzie, their bright, 13-year-old daughter. Although she lives with Susannah, Lizzie is close to both parents. Beyond that, there is mystery: while Teddy’s parents were killed in a car accident before Liz-

zie was bom, Lizzie knows nothing of Susannah’s own seldom-mentioned family.

When Susannah is called home to attend the small-town funeral of her father, the novel branches into two directions. The first follows Susannah as she confronts the mother and older sister who rejected her 14 years earlier, when she announced that she was having a much-wanted child out of wedlock with Teddy. For Lizzie, who accompanies her mother, the experience is also an ordeal. She not only enters an unknown past, but finally meets the people who, Barfoot writes, “didn’t want to know her.” Moving effortlessly between Susannah’s and Lizzie’s points of view, Barfoot depicts in unsparing psychological detail the anger, pain, misunderstanding—and partial

reconciliation—that accompany the unplanned reunion.

Meanwhile, the second branch of the story traces Teddy’s arrest on a trumped-up assault charge during a peace demonstration. He is given a seven-day jail term that both terrifies and outrages him. “This is not a building of justice,” the author writes. “It’s a building of intimidation, and it stinks of fear.” Ironically, jail proves to be as much a release for the

narcissistic, insecure Teddy as the death of her rigid father is for Susannah. Teddy discovers a sense of commitment to a woman he has recently fallen in love with. And his surprising decision to marry her prompts a new notion of family for all three characters, particularly Lizzie.

Barfoot’s prose may lack the luminously polished elegance of Alice Munro’s or the lookagain, deadpan humor of Margaret Atwood’s. But her reports from what she calls “the front lines of distress” are filed with at least as much subtle intelligence and feeling. They should easily guarantee Barfoot the wider audience that she deserves.

MORTON RITTS