Author (and former St. John resident) Annamarie Beckel once conducted behavioural research on river otters* for her doctoral thesis and her fourth novel, Weaving Water (2016, Killick Press) is about Beth, a fiftyish woman who teaches Biology at a university but longs to get back into research, specifically river otters. Her husband Alan is a veterinarian and has just come into ownership of a dilapidated cottage once owned by his Aunt Kathleen on Medicine Rock Pond, about a four-hour drive from St. John’s. Beth decides to take a couple of weeks alone at the cottage during the summer to observe a family of river otters and gather some preliminary data in order to prepare a proposal for funding to do more research on the little-known habits of these endearing creatures. Alan returns to the city, reluctantly leaving Beth in a place with no electricity, phone or running water and a leaky roof. She wants to wholly concentrate on gathering her data and making field notes without any distractions. However, distractions will soon make themselves manifest, much to Beth’s dismay.
Solitude, But Not Solitary
Beth is not alone for long, for she soon has a friendly Newfoundland dog (whose name is Muin, the Mi’kmaq name for bear) visiting her. It belongs to Mattie, Beth’s quirky octogenarian neighbour who was Kathleen’s best friend. Both the dog and Mattie will soon become entwined with Beth’s research and challenge Beth’s staid scientific beliefs in the mystical nature of humans, wildlife, and the environment. Mattie lives alone (aside from Muin) and is more in tune with the mysteries of nature and her creative side (she weaves tapestries) whereas Beth the scientist needs physical proof of everything and has little imagination. She also discovers she lacks the joie de vivre displayed by the otters as they interact with one another, forcing her to ponder over some of the choices she has made in life.
The text is also scattered with acute observations from the otter’s point of view, particularly the grandmother of the family group that Beth has been observing. Early in the book, the grandmother comes across a spot where Beth was recently waiting to observe them:
The oldest one lifts her head, smelling the air.There’s something new: the scent of human, female, sadness.
There are several other facets to the storyline, such as her growing affinity for Dan, Mattie’s grandnephew who is retired from the Canadian Forces and lives nearby. There are also the ‘ghosts’ from both Mattie’s and Beth’s past. Indeed, the past is just as prevalent as the present in Weaving Water, they all inhabit Mattie’s disturbing dreams as well as her waking hours. Beth, who is genuinely spooked by some of her dreams and disconcerted by surreal occurrences during the day, refuses to accept the concept of ghosts. Mattie quizzes Beth:
“Would you agree that scientists discover new stuff every day?”
“Stuff that sometimes changes the way we think about everything else?”
“Yes,” Beth says a little more tentative now.
“For thousands and thousands of years, everybody knew about ghosts. Then in the past two hundred years or so a few scientists come along and say Ghosts! What foolishness! How long till some scientist discovers a ghost? Then we’ll all be able to see ’em again.”
I found Weaving Water delightfully similar in nature to two of my favourite reads from last year: Bear-Warden and After Drowning. Bear-Warden for the main character’s interaction and awareness of a species as well as perspectives from the animal’s point of view. After Drowning has similar themes of introspection and self-discovery based on tragic incidents. With Weaving Water, Ms Beckel has cleverly composed a vastly intriguing tapestry of themes: lost friends, solitude and self-discovery in what is one of the best novels I have read this year. As such, I have put it on my 2017 longlist for the “Very Best” award for fiction. I also gave it 5/5 stars on Goodreads.
*All royalties from WEAVING WATER will be donated to the World Wildlife Fund Canada and the International Otter Survival Fund.
Annamarie Beckel conducted behavioural research on river otters for her doctoral thesis – and has remained forever enchanted. Formerly from St. John’s, she lives on the Otonabee River in Ontario, where she watches otters and other wild creatures from both her kayak and her living room.