While Carol Bruneau’s award-winning 2017 book of short stories, A Bird on Every Tree was excellent and well received (“Her exceptional prose reveals how much there is to discover in the every day” raved Publishersweekly.com), it merely whetted our appetites for one of her full-length works like Glass Voices (2007) or These Good Hands (2015). The wait is over for Nimbus Publishing has released A Circle on the Surface.
The story in A Circle on the Surface centres around Enman and Una Greene, a newlywed couple who, just a few short months after their nuptials are obliged to move from Halifax back to the fictional village of Barrein to assist Enman’s sick mother (“Ma”). Enman is wounded in the shins from being torpedoed during the war while serving in the merchant marine. He lost his mentor and best friend in the same attack. He has to leave his valued post at the bank for the move too. Una, working as a teacher, had been dismissed for having an affair with a married co-worker. She didn’t know the man was married, yet she is the one reprimanded and dismissed. (Tellingly, she has chosen to keep this incident a secret from Enman, although there are times when she almost tells him.) The agreed upon plan is that after Ma dies, they will sell the house and move back to the city. Una obviously doesn’t like caring for Ma (“I’m a teacher, not a nurse.”) And claustrophobic Barrein, aside from the wonderfully deserted beaches nearby, holds no charms for her. She finds the villagers meddlesome, rough folk:
Brain, the villagers called the place, as if saying the name properly took undue effort, which, for such things as knowing your business, they spared none.
However, the longer they stay after Ma dies, the more it becomes apparent to a beleaguered Una that her poor Enman has no real desire to leave Barrein again. At a meeting of the townspeople, Enman surveys the small group and reflects:
It made growing old easier somehow, Enman thought, being surrounded by others whose youthful experiences had been much as his had been. He didn’t need to explain himself or his past. Shared experience equalled oxygen breathed in a place where everyone knew everyone else, from whence they had come and whence they were very likely headed.
This is the principal conflict in A Circle on the Surface.
Then there is Una’s desire to have a child before she is too old (She is 37, Enman is 45. Enman’s sperm count is good; they had it tested). This is something that Enman is not even sure is wise (due to the world situation at the time), but since Una desires it so ardently, he acquiesces and they make earnest attempts to conceive. A secondary conflict is that since the story takes place during the height of The Battle of the Atlantic, U-boats are believed to be patrolling just offshore, and on a quiet night, you can hear them on the surface, charging their batteries, or so the locals say. Una, on one of her beach ramblings, encounters what very well could be a small encampment of shipwrecked German Navy men. Then, she encounters one of the men on the beach and this is when the story really takes off, as Una tries to keep the encounter a secret, for her own reasons.
The venerable Quill & Quire called Ms. Bruneau a “master” and indeed she is, particularly of the art of employing subtle imagery. I commented in my review of A Bird on Every Tree:
“Ms. Bruneau writes with a graceful precision and has a deftness with words and their cadences, their implications and meanings..”
For example, in the following passage, Enman and Una are in a theatre watching “Girl Crazy” and Una’s mind wanders:
Quit thinking thoughts that drag you down. Didn’t Kit [a teacher friend] have a phrase that had to do with private thoughts, a person’s jardin intérieure. Marriage had a way of wrenching open the gates of a woman’s or trying to. God forbid, fussing and fretting beside her, Enman would be a marauding deer ready to march in and munch away at her thorns and blooms. And what about his garden? The one in his mind, not the one he tended as if his mother could see it – was his interior garden full of flowers or weeds?
Oh, damn. Damn. At the thought of weeds, the tangle of all she held back from him, about what happened at work, how little by little, being in Barrein, she felt herself and her world shrinking, a tear slid down her cheek.
A Circle on the Surface may be Ms. Bruneau’s most accessible novel yet. It has been skilfully edited to keep the main protagonists and their conflicts foremost. The character of Enman is a winning one, despite his faults and his naivety towards Una’s needs. He has lost his best friend in the war, suffered deep tissue damage to his shins, is constantly battling an old alcohol addiction, and now has buried his beloved Ma. While it is hard not to take his side in the story, Una is not completely bereft of the reader’s sympathies. She wants a child and desperately wants to be back in Halifax. She also wants to teach, but there is the wartime restriction of not hiring married women to teach. Also, she fears her brief dalliance with the science teacher has become part of her permanent employment record. I have purposely left out other characters such as the foul-mouthed bootlegger Bart Twomey and his poor uneducated niece Hannah. Then there is the forthright Win Goodrow, Enman’s former teen love (and next-door neighbour). There are many characters and conflicts being juggled at various times and Ms. Bruneau is masterful at keeping them all in the air right until the final full stop.
A Final Thought
Starting a Carol Bruneau novel transports me to a book lover’s paradise, that special place where new unread books await, all written by my favourite authors. A Circle on the Surface is an amazingly good read that will only go towards elevating her in the eyes of her longtime fans and the Canadian literary world at large. I am adding A Circle on the Surface to my 2019 Longlist for a “The Very Best” Book Awards.
Carole Giangrande, the author of the remarkable novel All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, said of A Circle on the Surface:
* This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy supplied by Nimbus.
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