Acclaimed poet Catherine Graham’s debut novel Quarry (2017, Two Wolves Press) is the type of story that takes me back to two places: my high school English class and my family’s summer cottage. Firstly, it is exactly the type of book that our English teacher would have had us read as a class, then dissect and/or write a book review of. Very much like we did with The Stone Angel and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Secondly, it would appear that Caitlin Maharg, the young protagonist of the story and I are the same age, given such clues as then-current songs, TV shows and movies Ms. Graham drops into the story. As well, my childhood summers were spent at our cottage on a small lake with dock and a raft to swim to, much like Caitlin had. Needless to say, I was firmly hooked on the story within the first few pages!
The quarry upon which the Maharg family home (Caitlin is an only child) is located is unknown even to many of the locals. This sets up a backdrop of seclusion, a safe place that Caitlin returns to (and turns to) for comfort, for she identifies with the quarry and its uniqueness: that of an ugly void, empty (“Don’t think about air filling it up. Air fills up everything.”) but now filled with life-sustaining water (“Water makes the quarry more than it is; the blue we were drawn to.”). However, Caitlin has a void too, an undefined emptiness inside her, often, if not always, filled with worry.
“Tucked under the covers, I stared at the room’s dark and willed my body to ease and lighten, for the quarry inside me to calm again.”
While It changes with the seasons, the quarry is a resolute companion for Caitlin; she constantly looks out the window at it, checking it like some might look at an outside thermometer to gauge the day.
Small Family, Large Issues
Quarry begins with an eleven-year-old Caitlin and her younger cousin Cindy who has been spending a month in the summertime with the Mahargs. Due to their seclusion, Caitlin has no other close friends, a pattern which continues for most of the book, which takes us up to and through her university years. There are family secrets: suddenly, Cindy and her family become estranged from the Mahargs for a reason Caitlin doesn’t yet understand, her mother’s progressive illness, her father’s work as a travelling envelope salesman, her Nana’s strictness, a summer love with an American boy, then off to McMaster University which brings different into Caitlin’s conflicted life, all filling the quarry within her to a climactic breaking point.
While I am not an avid reader of poetry (to this point, anyway. I’m working on it!), I can see certain poetic touches in the narrative. Imagine a person trained in the fine arts being given the clean canvas of a room or house to decorate. Undoubtedly, you will see touches of their proficiency here and there. It is the same with Quarry: Ms. Graham’s use of images, of words and their structure, is amazing and refreshing; even amusing at times such as when Caitlin is required to meet with an estate lawyer:
“Mr. Dixon stood up from a chair from behind a desk that took up half the room, a moat to his bald-headed castle, a mahogany river I could not swim.”
Another favourite passage:
“Time ticks and memory persists. They knit together like colours in a rug and entwine to form patterns. The unexpected ticking of dad’s watch told me time would never stop. It kept shoving and shoving me forward, and memory kept pressing and pressing me back.”
Beautiful phrasing, painting pictures that hold fast in the reader’s mind.
Quarry is written in such a way that the reader is left to fill in certain voids on their own (as Caitlin is often required to do) and interpret the many images and circumstances in her life in order to make it through the story.
In short, Quarry is a fine debut novel and is a notably rewarding read and I highly recommend it. It would be an excellent book to consider for a book club. As such, I have put Quarry on the 2018 longlist for a “The Very Best!” Book Award for Fiction and I have added it to my “Summer Reads” list as well. I rated it “five stars” at Goodreads, too!
Quarry by Catherine Graham
Two Wolves Press
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Catherine Graham is the author of The Celery Forest (Wolsak and Wynn, Buckrider Books), a CBC Books Top 10 Canadian Poetry Collection of 2017, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects (Wolsak and Wynn, 2013, now in its second printing), Winterkill (Insomniac Press, 2010), The Red Element (Insomniac Press, 2008), Pupa (Insomniac Press, 2003) and The Watch (Abbey Press, 1998). Quarry is her first novel. Her website is: http://catherinegraham.com/