It’s a “double-double” kind of morning here in Julie’s Reading Corner, since I have two treats to enjoy and two books to tell you about as I sip my steaming chai tea on this dull, gray morning. I was at the market earlier than usual yesterday morning and was so thrilled to see a few Vanilla Scones at the Future Bakery stall that I bought one before I remembered that I was going to bake Date Bread this morning. The answer to my diemma? Eat both! (I will go on a long walk this afternoon to work them off).
My volunteer book club met yesterday to discuss Lisa Moore’s novel, February, which was recommended by one of the book club members. This novel is really an exploration of grief, in particular the grief of Helen, the widow of a man who died in the oil rig disaster off the coast of Newfoundland on Valentine’s Day, 1982. She was a young mother of three at the time, with a fourth on the way, although neither she nor her husband, Cal, knew it at the time. When disaster struck, Helen could not properly grieve, as she had to get on with life, day after day after day, until 26 years passes without allowing herself to mourn her loss and the loss her family had suffered. She dwells on what she doesn’t know about Cal’s death, and imagines again and again what his last minutes may have been like, hoping that he died playing cards with other men on the rig. Her children have suffered as well, particularly John, the oldest child and only boy, who feels he must take responsibility for the family, and yet is unable to take responsibility as an adult. When he contacts his mother from the other side of the world and tells her that a woman he met in Iceland seven months ago just told him she’s pregnant with his child, he is hoping she will allow him to once again shirk his responsibility, but her response is exactly what he needs to hear, and guides him in the right direction without ordering him to do one thing or another. I hadn’t read this novel before putting it on this year’s book list, but when I read the synopsis just before starting the book, I thought, “Oh no, another dark, depressing book!” One of my book club members has commented that we always read depressing books, which may be mostly true, but that may be because they are the best kind of books to discuss. Anyway, I began the book not expecting to enjoy it at all, despite the fact that it was the Canada Reads winner in 2013. This book, though, far exceeded my expectations. It was sad and depressing, but it looked at grief and grieving in a raw and honest way that was, according to one of my members, “very revealing”. Another of my members called to tell me she was not going to come to the meeting because she didn’t want to weep in front of the rest of the group. She had lost her husband 27 years ago, when she, too, was a young mother, and this book was just too close to her own experience. She said that she wants her kids to read it, though, so that they could better understand what she had gone through while they were growing up. I thought that Moore, whose works I have never read before now, used incredible language and imagery to explore this emotionally complex area with sensitivity and grace. It was all about love and loss, and about the ordinariness and preciousness of everyday life. When describing an anonymous woman who asks to share a table with John in a crowded coffee shop, Moore writes, “She unzips her jacket and sighs so deeply that she falls into herself like a cake.” And later, when Helen is waiting for her flight home from Paris, she watches as a Cleaning Operative uses a long-handled claw to extract a crumpled napkin from under the seat of a sleeping man. Helen imagines that the cleaning operative had reached into the man’s dreams and snatched away a plot twist, the key or turning point on which everything hinged, or that the napkin was the plug that kept the man’s dreams from whirling down the drain in a great spiral into a parallel universe. These and many other moments like them helped give this otherwise overly-contemplative novel some life. We discussed the moments of humour in the novel, such as when John wishes to show his family the birth video, but instead brought the video of his zip-lining experience in Tasmania, or when Helen’s sister, Louise, gets kicked off the bus in Paris and has to hitchhike to the airport. One of my members didn’t like the writing style, the choppiness and repetitiveness of the prose, and she felt that it bounced back and forth too much. She and others also felt frustrated with Helen’s inability to move on with her life, and we wondered whether Helen would still be feeling the grief so acutely after 26 years. But then we talked about delayed grief, and the fact that Helen had to take care of her kids, and find a way to make ends meet so she wouldn’t lose her house, and deal with the bureaucracy surrounding the government settlement for the disaster victims and their families, and deal with her pregnancy, and just generally live her life and raise her kids in the best way she could without bringing the children into her own grief and suffering. Near the beginning, Moore writes that Helen felt “outside”, which I felt summed up her response to her life for those 26 years, that she must deal with what is going on around her and her children, and not deal with what is “inside”, perhaps until she has the time and the emotional strength to do so properly. One member put it this way: “The openness and sadness in the novel is all-pervasive, and it is very revealing”. If I had known what this book was about before I made up the reading list, would I have chosen it? I think not. But I’m glad I read it, and it was a good book for group discussion. And I now feel that I’ve discovered another talented Canadian author that I had not read before. I would not recommend this to anyone who really needs a linear storyline, or who needs novels that are plot-driven, but it is well worth exploring for fans of language-driven novels.
After finishing this contemplative novel, I picked up a book that I put on hold at the library, but where I’d heard of this novel, I can’t recall. Tina Seskis’ debut novel, One Step Too Far, opens with Emily Coleman getting on a train and disappearing, but what is she leaving behind? As I sped through the book, I discovered that Emily, who has changed her name to Catherine/Cat, has a twin sister, Caroline, who may or may not be deranged. She strives to begin again, but soon realizes that it takes more than a new name, new friends and a new job to escape your past. This page-turner was a roller-coaster ride through Emily’s life, with slices of her distant past interspersed with her present and recent past until all the pieces of this puzzle fall into place, a little too neatly for my liking, but still, it was a good choice after the somewhat-too-contemplative February. I would definitely recommend this light read to anyone who enjoys fast-paced psychological thrillers like SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep (which is next month’s book club selection).
That’s all for today.
Bye for now…