Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ambitious story told from seven points of view

By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Goose Lane Editions, 336 pages, $23

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

TWO novels and a short-story collection into her writing and publishing career, Toronto literary writer Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer has made two things patently obvious.

First, she's eerily good at writing both sex and violence. Second, her stories feature elaborate storylines that are almost impossible to summarize in a few sentences.

Kuitenbrouwer's first novel, The Nettle Spinner (2005), set up all kinds of interesting parallels between an utterly contemporary story of a rape in a tree-planting camp in northern Ontario and a Flemish folktale that rivals any of the Brothers Grimm stories for, well, grimness.

Her ambitious new novel, Perfecting, tells the story of Curtis and Martha, who met when the New Mexico-born Curtis stepped off a bus full of Vietnam War-fleeing conscientious objectors in 1970s Toronto.

With Martha's help, Curtis founds a religious community they dub Soltane in eastern Ontario.

Thirty years on, Martha finds Curtis's gun under a floorboard, and their life together begins to unravel. That's because Perfecting is also the story of Curtis and Edgar, the half-brother Curtis was ordered to kill by their abusive yet charismatic father Hollis.

Piecing together what she knows of Curtis and what she thinks she knows of Curtis, Martha leaves Soltane and travels south. Curtis follows, deeply anxious about his past and his future:

"Curtis thought suddenly how a person could not ever pay for what he'd done. You did it and it owned you; you did it and you were created by it. You could run, you could hide, but you could not expect to be free."

But as difficult as Kuitenbrouwer's plots are to diagram, her main project to date is crystal clear: exploring the radiating effects of violence. In The Nettle Spinner, the violence in question is rape. In Perfecting, it's murder.

What makes Perfecting such an interesting novel are the risks that Kuitenbrouwer took in writing it.

She had spent time as a tree planter and lumberjack before writing The Nettle Spinner, and the book benefited enormously from details of the industrial/natural life on offer in those professions.

But despite its strange and surprising content, the novel was fairly simple, structurally, told from the point of view of the rape victim and working off the contrast between the fable and the main story.

Perfecting, on the other hand, is told from the point of view of seven different characters: Curtis, Martha, Hollis, Hollis's mistress, and three of Curtis's half-brothers.

Each voice is distinct and each believable, which would be reason enough to pick up this novel, but Kuitenbrouwer also writes exceptionally well about subjects she presumably has no first-hand knowledge of, including religious communities, fratricide and war rugs.

None of which means that Perfecting is an easy read. Kuitenbrouwer does not believe in handling her readers with kid gloves and so, like Curtis's father, Perfecting is compelling but brutal.

Unlike British Columbian Eden Robinson's equally dark work - her latest novel, Blood Sports (2006), contained scenes of torture - there is no good guy or redeeming romance to root for here.

No, Perfecting more closely resembles Winnipegger David Bergen's The Time in Between (2005), where ambiguity reigns and stories are told because they must be told.

But still, it must be said: Brava!

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

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