Friday, March 22, 2013
One of my fondest memories of the night shifts as a security guard in Toronto was to listen to the Canada Reads debates on CBC radio that Jian Gomeshi anchors.
Canada Reads is an annual “battle of books” where five Canadian books compete and a winner emerges by process of elimination. The competition started in 2001 and in 2013, the winner is Lisa Moore’s February, originally published in 2009.
I picked up the novel from Walmart (!) at a discount.
I’d have missed a masterpiece but for Canada Reads.
Here are some impressions about the book.
Pain, loneliness and quiet suffering are difficult to describe because it’s easy to get sentimental describing them and go overboard; or conversely, understate their enormity in trying to maintain objectivity.
Lisa Moore’s February is a novel about pain, loneliness and quiet suffering. It describes Helen O’Mara’s desolation after she is suddenly left to pick up the pieces of her life when her husband Cal dies; it does so without overt sentimentality but with an accurate certitude.
Helen is used to the emptiness of being alone. She has learnt to ignore her own needs bringing up three children on her own. She’s lived a life on memories of the small things that has stayed with her when life had a meaning. But she doesn’t want to get used to the emptiness of being alone.
Even a lifetime of loneliness doesn’t help you adjust to a lifetime of loneliness and you seek escape in children, siblings, trips down south and to Europe.
Lisa Moore tells us about Helen’s life in short episodes. The present doesn’t follow the past in the narrative; often they’re jostling for space in the same paragraph. The non-linear narrative accentuates Helen’s transparent (and futile) attempts to keep a cloud of opacity on her inner turmoil.
Helen O’Mara will stay with you for a long time after you turn the last page of the novel.
Here’s an exquisite passage from the novel:
We have grown apart, she thought. She’d gone on without him. She would have sat next to him and peeled the apple and she would have felt like his mother. The dead are not individuals, she thought. They are all the same.
That’s what made it so hard to stay in love with them. Like men who enter prison and are stripped of their worldly possessions, clothes, jewellery, the dead were stripped of who they were. Nothing ever happened to them, they do not change or grow, but they didn’t stay the same either. They are not the same as they were when they were alive, Helen thought.
The act of being dead, if you could call it an act, made them very hard to love. They’d lost the capacity to surprise. You needed a strong memory to love the dead, and it was not her fault that she was failing. She was trying. But no memory was that strong. This was what she knew now: no memory was that strong.
Listen to Lisa Moore and Trent McClellan talk to Jian Gomeshi: