Sunday, March 15, 2009

First novel has power to jab reader in vitals

Come, Thou Tortoise
By Jessica Grant
Knopf Canada, 432 pages, $30

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

The opening pages of Newfoundlander Jessica Grant's promising debut novel are disarming. Literally.

Audrey (aka Oddly) Flowers, terrified of flying to begin with, disarms an air marshal on a flight from her adopted Oregon back to her hometown of St. John's. She is going home because her beloved father has been bashed with a Christmas tree and is in a coma.

Next we learn that Audrey has left Winnifred, the titular tortoise that she inherited from an ex-boyfriend, back in Oregon.

But the distance between them doesn't mean Winnifred can't narrate occasional chapters about her current straits ---- being tortoise-sat by a faintly resentful out-of-work Shakespearean actor, for instance -- and muse on Audrey's relationship with Cliff, the ex.

As you'd expect from such a premise (and from an author whose previous book, a collection of short stories, was titled Making Light of Tragedy) the prose is full of puns and other clevernesses that verge on precious.

Underneath it all, thankfully, is a beating heart. As with a tortoise, you just have to wait for the irregular beats.

But as the tortoise herself notes, "When the heartbeats do come, they are magnificent."

One beat is that Audrey's grief over her father's sudden debilitation is stunningly, groaningly real.

Her attempts to reconcile herself to his later death, to the mysteries of her childhood, are confused and illogical but are nevertheless riveting in Grant's capable hands.

A second beat is the novel's loving and subtle portrayal of homosexual relationships, in this case between Audrey's father and the man she was taught to call "Uncle Thoby."

Another is the realization that Audrey's linguistic quirks, which could be mistaken for cleverness-for-the-sake-of-cleverness on Grant's part, is really the highly specific language of Audrey's family melded with a slight Newfoundland accent.

Make no mistake: though there is passing social commentary, Audrey does not have the precocious intelligence and wry, acutely self-aware sense of humour of Miriam Toews' protagonists.

Also, unlike Nomi or even DBC Pierre's Vernon Little, Audrey is an adult. A child-like adult to be sure, but an adult nonetheless. (Her reply to the statement, mid-novel, that she's grown up? "Yes and no.")

So credit Grant for crafting a convincing -- yet odd -- story. Despite the quirks, despite the extravagant wordplay and the storytelling tortoise, this is a novel that has the power to jab you in the vitals.

What does feel slightly unearned, however, are the occasional illustrations and strike-outs. They feel gratuitous (and hipster-lite) in a 400-plus page novel, especially as the strike-outs are abandoned after the first chapter.

But that's a minor quibble for what is, on the whole, a funny and sad and splendid first novel.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her first book of poetry, with Kingsville, Ontario's Palimpsest Press, is slated for publication in 2010.

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