Sunday, March 04, 2007

that night in the pub

By Jennifer McCartney
Penguin Canada, 244 pages

ImageReviewed by Ariel Gordon

EVERYONE has a dream about being discovered, being plucked from obscurity and being made bright and shiny and famous.

Hamilton-based writer Jennifer McCartney isn't tabloid fodder yet, but she did manage to secure an agent and a book deal within a week of giving a three-minute reading in a pub in Aberdeen, Scotland.

(Admittedly, it was a reading for the Aberdeen Word Fest that was sponsored by the University of Glasgow's Creative Writing Program, which McCartney was enrolled in at the time, but you get the general idea.)

The result of all this furor is Afloat, McCartney's promising first novel, which evokes the glad and desperate chaos of Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness (2004).

The story, about a young woman's summer adventure, is told in two parts and spans 40 years.

But instead of delving into the present and the recent past, McCartney chooses to set her story in the year 2000 -- and then 40 years in the future.

Though Afloat is being marketed as a literary novel, this quirk makes it speculative fiction as well.

Aside from Margaret Atwood, with her novels The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003), there are very few Canadian writers who have successfully straddled both genres.

While Atwood's dystopian imaginings included sweeping political change in the former and massive ecological meltdown in the latter, McCartney's vision of the future is kinder and gentler -- and also much less specific.

To descend into geek speak for a moment, McCartney's world building is sub-par.

In fact, besides the enormous storms as much as 200 miles across created by climate change, a flu-like illness that kills 25 per cent of its victims, and a Mormon president of the United States, life in 2040 seems much like life in 2007.

What works -- and works particularly well -- is the contemporary strand of the novel, in which Bell, a student from St. Paul, arrives at the chi chi tourist destination of Michigan's Mackinac Island for a summer of waiting on tables.

Bell is soon absorbed into the instant community of tourism workers on the island, where everyone is from somewhere else -- Utah, Ohio, even Ontario.

Like everyone else, Bell's temporary residence on the island, with only a shared mailbox connecting her to the outside world, allows her to skim the surface of her life back home.

And so, like everyone else, Bell spends the summer "afloat" on a veritable lagoon of booze. When she works days, she drinks in the early afternoon. When she works nights, she drinks in the evenings.

This pose is familiar to anyone who's ever spent time working in tourist towns or in the half-life of an expatriate community. Behaviours that aren't acceptable -- or even sustainable -- at home work just fine while living among strangers.

Soon after her arrival on Mackinac, Bell meets Bryce, a lapsed Mormon reluctant to talk about his family. Their devotion to each other is instantaneous and unswerving, until two events derail not only their summer but also their lives.

Forty years later, in the novel's second thread, we spend the day with the recently retired and bereaved Bell, who muses on the currents of her life while waiting for a mystery visitor that holds the key to her summer in Mackinac.

Though the character-trapped-in-memory is a standard literary trope, in this case it is hard to believe.

First, Bell has had what seems like a full life and a happy marriage with another man, and second, she is barely 60. Surely she's not in Hagar Shipley territory yet?

In the end, though the book has very definite faults, it also captures the lurching and reeling energy of youth, proving that McCartney deserved to be discovered, that night in the pub.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.


Anita Daher said...

Hmmmm...this book has been on my "must pick up" list. I spent some time on Makinac island, and look forward to experiencing the area again. Looks interesting, despite flaws.

Sheila Dalton said...

Hi, Ariel
I featured Jennifer McCartney's
i Afloat
on my online book club's blog, The Buzz About Books, just before it came out.
Jennifer's story appealed to me. I know have the book on loan from the library.
I thought your description of it was very good, and I may link to you on The Buzz.