Books

UNFORGOTTEN COUNTRY

New Canadian fiction still draws from a past quickly fading into myth

Brian Bethune July 1 2002
Books

UNFORGOTTEN COUNTRY

New Canadian fiction still draws from a past quickly fading into myth

Brian Bethune July 1 2002

UNFORGOTTEN COUNTRY

New Canadian fiction still draws from a past quickly fading into myth

Books

BRIAN BETHUNE

EVERY YEAR, CANADA becomes more multicultural, more concentrated in its largest cities, farther from its rural past. According to the census, that is; you’d be hard-pressed to know it from Canadian literature. To a remarkable extent, our stories are still rooted in that past, in smaller communities and dominant cultures. That’s true for major works from major writers—consider Clara Callan by Richard Wright, the novel of 2001—as well as for fiction by newcomers. Among recent works from less established authors, the runaway hit is Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake, set in an isolated farming settlement in northern Ontario. Other heralded books include Saints of Big Harbour by Lynn Coady (Cape Breton Island), Lisa Moore’s

Open (St. John’s) and—an exception that proves the rule—Nancy Lee’s Dead Girls (Vancouver). Canadians love literary fiction—our best-seller lists reveal a demand for it scarcely matched elsewhere—and we love it best small-scale but mythic, set in hard times or hard places.

A mythic feel is one key to the success of

Crow Lake (Knopf). Another is that Lawson, 56, who has lived in England since 1968, is an incessant rewriter who spent years on it. The fruit of her efforts is a mesmerizing read. It’s narrated, in past and present views, by Kate Morrison, a 26-year-old University of Toronto zoology professor who has fallen in love with a colleague. That unexpected emotional awakening, the first of her adult life, combines with an invitation to her nephew’s 18thbirthday party in Crow Lake to force Kate to re-examine troubled memories. Her parents died 19 years earlier, their car crushed by a logging truck. They had been out shopping for a suitcase for their oldest child, 19-year-old Luke, to take to teachers’ college. The four Morrison children—

Luke, 17-year-old Matt, seven-year-old Kate and toddler Bo—are grief-stricken, close to penniless and faced with breaking up the family among several equally hardpressed relatives.

Luke, who never really cared much about becoming a teacher, simply switches gears and decides to stay in Crow Lake, working at whatever he can to support the younger children. He decides that Matt, the real brains of the Morrisons, will have the honour of being the first of the hardscrabble farming family to achieve a higher education. By keeping the children together, Luke’s plan rescues Kate from the edge of a breakdown: Matt is the one who has always made her feel safe and

protected, the one who takes her to the pond near their home where, in a foretaste of her adult career, they spend hours examining its tiny life. But Matt is also the one who stumbles dramatically and never escapes the farm—a monstrous betrayal of his potential in Kate’s eyes.

Crow Lake is the sort of novel often described as “deceptively simple” to explain its appeal. Except there’s no sleight of hand at all, no ironic current running under its surface. Crow Lake really is as simple as it looks, a tale of small hopes and failures—nicely balanced with the microscopic creatures that so fascinate Kate— which comes to a far from spectacular, though satisfactory, denouement at the

birthday party. The characters are more likeable than compelling, save the mulish, force-of-nature Bo, but an 18-month-old does not a novel make. The northern setting is mythically unreal, often more reminiscent of the 1880s than the 1980s. (Government involvement in the orphans’ lives is impossibly minimal, and the cultural milieu—Presbyterian, with occasional exotic touches supplied by the more emotional Protestant sects—is pure Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.)

Those flaws, though, only make Lawson’s achievement all the more impressive. Of the strands novelists must weave together—storyline, language, structure, characters, setting—Crow Lake

shows strong evidence only of the first two. But Lawson’s narrative gift, voiced in quiet, unselfconscious prose that never distracts from the story, is so immense that it overwhelms everything else. Her novel’s word-of-mouth success is a tribute to the power of old-fashioned storytelling.

Lisa Moore’s Open (Anansi) is stylistically a mirror opposite. Far from the seamless and inexorable narrative that Lawson provides, in her stories Moore, 38, offers the disjointed moment, when dazzling insights or feelings are captured while no one else notices what’s going on. Her female protagonists have a lot of trouble with men, but they’re not anti-male. One woman, in fact, is almost paralyzed by grief, achingly but effortlessly conveyed by the writer, for her dead husband. Nor are the men evil or unintelligent. But they are, emotionally speaking, thick as bricks—at least in comparison to the women, who notice everything. And they all do this noticing, this obsessive collect-

ing of movement and colour (it comes as no surprise to learn Moore used to work as an art critic), in pursuit of something they know is transient by its nature. “There’s no way,” concludes a mother watching her daughter absorbed in play, “to keep this moment in the present.”

Moore’s talent is staggering, her images arresting, her dialogue, particularly between men and women, needle-to-theeye sharp. (A wife in a troubled marriage to her husband: “From now on, if I say I love you, Fm speaking out of habit.”) There isn’t a weak story in the book, while The Way the Light Is and Melody are gems. Open, Moore’s second short-story collection, signals a major new presence in Canadian literature.

The linked short stories in Nancy Lee’s Dead Girls (McClelland & Stewart) are more easily visualized as novels-in-waiting. Lee, 31, is thoroughly modern, and

her writing is set in the gritty here and now of Vancouver. E-mail plays a large role in “Associated Press,” a tale of false intimacy created by advanced communications. The narrator is torn between a journalist lover, who reports from the Third World on human rights atrocities, and a local boy, who plays S&M games with her. She feels she can’t cope with the reporter’s social conscience, and responds to his e-mailed photos of mass graves with shots of “local atrocities” like a “retirement cake in the shape of breasts.” But the problem doesn’t lie in his politics—in the end, as always, it’s distance that kills.

The entire collection is haunted by absence, by the dozens of women who have gone missing from the city’s Downtown Eastside, though the pieces were written before the recent discoveries at a Port Coquitlam pig farm. In the title story, a mother and father are almost destroyed by losing their daughter to drugs and prostitution, and soon, they fear, to death. Lee’s stories can be disturbing, yet they are redeemed by a humaneness in her writing, a sympathetically imagined depiction of hope and despair.

Lynn Coady, 32, is another Vancouver writer, but her imagination still dwells in the Cape Breton Island of her childhood. She too is a rising CanLit star whose first island novel, Strange Heaven, was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award in 1998. She’s back there again with Saints of Big Harbour (Doubleday), tapping into the rich vein of East Coast storytelling tradition with its quirky rhythms and sly humour. A tragicomic tale of aimless teens and pathetic adults set in 1982, Saints features characters who embody an array of shiftless Maritimer stereotypes that would appall even Stephen Harper.

Alcohol, and the violence it provokes, is the thread that connects almost everyone. But Coady effectively uses her two main characters, a fatherless 16-year-old named Guy Boucher and his uncle Isadore Aucoin—a black hole of selfishness who destroys everyone around him—to subvert all the clichés. Hard-luck Guy, bewildered by girls, savagely mistreated by his uncle and pursued by a false charge of sexual assault, tumbles into every pitfall imaginable. But he keeps trying in a world where everyone else has given up, and his courage brings Saints to a hopeful end.