Murder, deafness, an obsession with films and the healing power of stories

Brian Bethune October 6 2003


Murder, deafness, an obsession with films and the healing power of stories

Brian Bethune October 6 2003



Murder, deafness, an obsession with films and the healing power of stories


DEEP WITHIN Ann-Marie MacDonald’s long-awaited second novel, The Way the Crow Flies (Knopf), her omniscient narrator makes an aside about the old two-lane highways that link Toronto and Ottawa. They’re more dangerous, she notes, than the newer, multi-lane 401, not because the freeway has controlled-access ramps or dividers between oncoming traffic, but because “these winding roads, with their scenery and their signs, are narrative—the 401 is just a series of facts.” It’s an arresting, multiple image—bringing to mind not just the fact that old roads tell old stories of past migrations and settlements, but also the notion that any way of explaining the world is inherently risky. Narratives can set you free, but their unexpected twists and turns can as easily send you careening off your road, shattering what had seemed eternally solid a moment before.

For all its manifold plots and themes, all serious literature is in part about writing itself, the act of manipulating language to construct alternative realities, sometimes from shards of personal memory, sometimes from nothing at all. And it does so in pursuit of an emotional truth that’s both fictive and tangible. “Not real,” a character in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake tells freshly bioengineered humans when he struggles to explain artistic representation to them, “can tell us about real.”

Frances Itani, in her much-hyped Deafening (HarperCollins), is less overt about her art than MacDonald—her narrator never intrudes—but equally ambitious. Itani’s tale

of a young deaf woman during the First World War contrasts her home-front life in Ontario with that of her hearing husband, who is in Flanders, mired in a conflict so loud its guns can be heard across the English Channel. How the two communicate and describe their different worlds is the essence of the novel. In Garbo Laughs (McClelland & Stewart), the story of a movie-obsessed middle-aged woman in which the dialogue frequently sounds as though it was lifted from a 1930s screwball comedy, Elizabeth Hay doesn’t reach as high as Itani, but her grasp is surer. Neither

GRAN IA and her

husband, Jim, struggle to describe their different worlds in Deafening

Deafening nor Garbo Laughs, however, match the combination of ambition and achievement that marks The Way the Crow Flies, a mesmerizing recreation of a vanished era and a lost childhood.

Like the quietly intrusive narrator, the crows of the title watch over MacDonald’s novel from its first page, providing an ironic, bird’s-eye view of characters who do anything but take a direct route to their destination. Other birds saw only a mystifying series of actions in a meadow in the early spring of1963, but the crows are different— “I believe crows know things about us,” mut-

ters the author in an interview. In The Way the Crow Flies, they saw a murder, the death that lies at the book’s heart. (No surprise there: the collective noun for the species is “a murder of crows.”)

But the story proper begins a year earlier with the arrival of the impossibly happy McCarthy family at RCAF base Centralia, 40 km north of London, Ont. Although Ann-Marie MacDonald was only three in the summer of 1962, and her protagonist, the similarly Catholic Madeleine McCarthy, is eight, the novelist otherwise matches her character detail for detail. Both have vaguely exotic mothers (Lebanese for Ann-Marie, Acadian for Madeleine), desk-jockey air force officers for fathers, and the itinerant backgrounds of military brats (MacDonald too came to Centralia in 1962, from the Canadian air base in Baden-Baden, West Germany, where she was born). Both knew

they were different at a young age, and both had a hard time winning parental acceptance— harder with their mothers—when they declared their lesbianism as adults.

Madeleine, like Ann-Marie, is an acute observer and a guardian of memory, skills cultivated by the rootless and those who are always trying to fit in. So apart does she feel that she sometimes seriously wonders if everyone else is an alien merely pretending to be human. (Nineyear-old Ann-Marie used to think the same thoughts, once so terrifying her five-year-old brother, John-Hugh—and herself—with her speculations about the true nature of their father that the two children threw up in the back seat of their car while waiting for dad.)

Madeleine has a lot to observe the year she spends in Centralia, from the actions of her sinister Grade 4 teacher to the events surrounding the murder—modelled on the Steven Truscott case of1959—of a classmate who disturbingly resembles her. Claire McCarroll was the child of a seconded USAF officer who is stationed in Centralia—with his family for cover—only because he’s a pawn in an intelligence plot that also involves Madeleine’s father. But Claire’s death is not simply a matter of wrong-place, wrong-time bad luck. Palpable throughout the novel is MacDonald’s moral outrage, her hatred of secrets, whether the small, seemingly innocuous ones of childhood, or the big lies that sustained the Cold War. Claire met her fate, MacDonald says, because it was the innocent American who “had to die on behalf of an agenda supposedly carried out in her name.”

The adult world comes to no satisfactory explanation of Claire’s murder—a local teenager is wrongfully convicted, but many are unhappy with the verdict. The McCarthys move away to another posting. The family begins to drift apart, at first imperceptibly, as Madeleine’s guilt-ridden father closes in on himself. She grows up barely aware that the truth—the story—lies not hidden but disassembled “like bits of Lego” in her mem-

ory. Mere facts are only “half a story,” the narrator notes, “like a face gazing into an empty mirror, like a man without a shadow.” And what do shadows do? “They catch up.”

But not for more than 20 years, not until the 1980s when the health of Madeleine’s father deteriorates alarmingly and the Cold War heats up again. Madeleine—now an openly gay, successful, prime-time TV comedian-starts to have panic attacks and bouts of inexplicable weeping. The ground is shifting beneath her feet again, but this time, older and stronger, she crafts a story that answers all the questions.

The Way the Crow Flies is the result of


MacDonald writes, ‘is like a face gazing into an empty mirror’

five years of writing and a lifelong interest in Steven Truscott, whose “spirit and courage” are saluted in the author’s note. “I lived across the street from Collins Bay Penitentiary, where he was imprisoned for awhile,” MacDonald recounts. “And my parents were acquainted with his, so there were these filaments of connection.” Her belief in Truscott’s innocence and her stripmining of her own life for her character made for painful progress. “Everything was so close to me, I felt I was writing with my face against a mountain,” says the author, echoing a phrase Madeleine uses as she tries to see her memories as a whole. “I’d ask myself, ‘How do I get perspective, how do I separate the details important to me from those that will strike a wider chord?’ I worried whether I was just writing about my cute little self or a real character.”

Whatever grounds for worry MacDon-

aid may have detected in her early drafts, there are none left in the finished novel. Her depiction of a vulnerable girl almost destroyed by the confluence of global politics and local murder is rendered with beauty and passion. Through Madeleine, MacDonald accomplishes what she calls “the miracle” of fiction, “turning personal memory into something universal—when your memories travel far enough away from you, they don’t belong to you anymore.” Real becomes not real becomes universal truth through the alchemy of writing.

Deafening, another novel that reaches back to a little girl’s childhood for its genesis, has a peculiarly apt title. It was published less than a month ago, but it’s been one of the most talked-about Canadian books for a year. Foreign publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall greeted Frances Itani’s first novel with an ear-splitting roar, and fiercely competitive bidding turned the 61-year-old Ottawa writer into an instant millionaire. For a mainstream novel devoted to the intriguing themes of deafness and war, her tale of the courageous Grania O’Neill, who lost her hearing in a bout of scarlet fever at age 5, and her loving husband, Jim, must have sounded like commercial gold. (It is, in fact, riding high on best-seller lists, including Maclean’s.) But its literary merits are harder to discern.

Itani, whose husband, Ted, was in the Canadian Forces for 37 years, knows the unique place the Great War holds in the Canadian psyche: part slaughterhouse and part crucible of the nation, a giant stride on the road from colony to independence. Her research into it was prodigious, including visiting the battlefields on a tour she drew up herself. But her actual description of Jim’s experiences doesn’t rise above standard military issue. Alan Cumyn, a fellow Ottawa writer with whom Itani generously shared her research, made better use of it in the riveting opening to his novel The Sojourn, published in May. (“He phoned me one day,” Itani says,

“and I showed him my stuff, and he went on my battlefield tour. I told him the best place to see actual trenches was at Sanctuary Wood, where they’re preserved on a privately owned piece of land.”)

But in fairness, the writer’s


Garbo Laughs view the world through the beguiling prism of movies

first interest was never the war, but the life of Grania, who is modelled on her own beloved grandmother. There Itani’s research paid off, including her study of American Sign, a language as nuance-rich and meaning-filled as any spoken tongue. The neverwavering decency of Itani’s characters makes them less than believable, but she writes about their lives and struggles with a spare elegance. And when Jim attempts to convey the war’s hellish cacophony of sounds to his wife, or Grania nurses a shattered veteran by teaching him how to tap into a still and silent core within him, Deafening grapples insightfully with the very nature of human communication. Few in number but remarkably powerful in their effect, those


DEAFENING HarperColiins $34.95 378 pages


$37.95,712 pages

GARBO LAUGHS McClelland & Stewart $34.99 374 pages

scenes are the gems in what is otherwise a high-gloss, high-quality romance.

Elizabeth Hay’s Garbo Laughs is a dreamy, moving, ffequendy hilarious novel that takes its starting point from a comment made by celebrated film critic Pauline Kael: “We will never know the extent of the damage movies are doing to us.” Harriet Browning, 47, Ottawa mother and struggling writer, was never allowed to watch movies as a child. (Well, none worth watching—Harriet’s mother once dragged home a bag of NFB documentaries and showed her children a home-construction epic called Nails.) As a result, the adult Harriet is obsessed with films. She and her two children—her gentle husband is left out of this loop—watch them religiously, discuss them to the exclusion of all else, and view the world through their beguiling prism.

Movies are Harriet’s salvation, providing distraction from her constant, low-grade awareness of passing time and diminishing opportunity. She is the novel’s own Greta Garbo, that Swedish-born icon of silverscreen glamour who travelled incognito under the name Harriet Brown—and who made no sound when she laughed. (Meaning someone else’s laugh had to be dubbed into her films, much as Harriet often resorts to other writer’s dialogue.)

In the winter of 1997-98, however, Harriet’s stable worlds (real and filmic) are disrupted by cataclysmic events. Her hated aunt, the widow of a famous screenwriter, arrives to stay, accompanied by her sardonic stepson; the pair are soon followed by the great ice storm. A more hard-edged reality shakes up the household as shifting alliances form, dissolve and re-form. But it takes, in true Hollywood style, a fatal illness to finally bring down the curtain on the movie club.

Hay’s novel is startlingly original, a note-perfect character study of a frequendy irritating but nonetheless sympathetic woman. Her dialogue crackles, whether borrowed from, or crafted in tribute to, classic films. What’s more, simply by the depth of her obsession, Harriet can sometimes will her life to unfold more like a movie. And who among us hasn’t wished for that? 171