Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fine opening writing fails to carry novel

By Anne Simpson
McClelland & Stewart, 320 pages, $33

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

THE opening section of Nova Scotia-based poet and literary writer Anne Simpson's much-anticipated second novel may be the hardest working bit of prose in any title published this year.

In 21 lean but lyrical lines, Simpson manages to drown 17-year-old Lisa MacKenzie, trapping her under her brother Damian's ATV:

"Her body was splayed in the stream. She struggled several more times, with less vigour, and then she didn't move. Though she was face down, one of her hands lay with the palm up so the water moved over her fingertips."

Lisa's death is the locus around which Damian and their mother, Ingrid, revolve throughout the book, which gives the section additional weight, but it also demonstrates everything that is glorious about Simpson's work.

It is not going too far to say that the passage is almost an object lesson in craft.

The 300-odd pages that follow, in which Damian and Ingrid travel to Niagara Falls to visit Ingrid's brother Roger and scatter Lisa's ashes, are more problematic.

In the first two chapters, for instance, we are told twice that Lisa's death is going to really hurt Damian.

We are also told several times how attractive is Damian, a young artist with long blonde hair. He has "a kind of animal grace" and "hair like the angel Gabriel."

These creaky tell-not-show moments are a little shocking, coming from a writer of Simpson's experience and especially given the admirable subtlety she displayed in her first novel, Canterbury Beach (2001).

That book revolved around a family reunion that included a disintegrating marriage, several sibling rivalries, and a prodigal son. But it never gave instructions as to how readers should perceive the characters.

In addition, though Lisa's death is deftly drawn, by the end of the book we know next to nothing about her. She is a cipher, a vessel for emotion for Falling's other characters.

Without a reason to feel for Lisa specifically, readers are forced to fall back on emotional shorthand: a young woman, full of potential, has died. This is tragic, certainly, but is it enough to entice readers through an entire novel (as opposed to a news article)?

Falling's other focus is the relationship between Damian and Jasmine/Sandra, a beautiful young woman from Saskatchewan determined to reinvent herself as an artist in New York.

Unfortunately, readers who haven't engaged emotionally with Damian by this point will find it difficult to care when the fledgling relationship ends prematurely.

Also, it seems that it would be fairly easy to be (or, perhaps, to write) young, beautiful and in love.

As Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001) proved, it is trickier - and more interesting to those who are no longer (or who never have been) young and beautiful - to write the rest of the affair, the rest of the marriage, the rest of a life.

That said, Simpson redeems herself mid-novel, with a section that catalogues the grieving Damian's mental disintegration. Its adept use of the page recalls Simpson's three books of poetry, including the Griffin Prize-winning Loop (2003).

But like Carol Shields' Daisy Goodwill, Damian's "sorrowing has limits."

It doesn't help that this is a novel of charmed people of the upper middle class. One of the points made by Shields' final novel, Unless (2003), was that charmed people have the furthest to fall.

But by this point in the novel, we already know that both Damian and Ingrid will be fine.

And so, while Falling features some fine writing and some well-turned set pieces, such as Jasmine's descriptions of her life on the Prairies, these fragments do not add up to a satisfying whole.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

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