The Clock of Heaven by Dian Day

I believe I may have found a new “favourite” writer in Dian Day. I recently read her new book The Madrigal (clicking the link will take you to another site) and I was very impressed by it. It was an intriguing read about the life of Frederick, the seventh son (all the other six were twins) and the issues he had to deal with growing up and some that haunted him up to his adult life. Sooner or later, he must deal with them head-on.

With The Clock of Heaven, we have a female protagonist, Esa Withrod who, as the youngest of three sisters (one parallel with Frederick) has grown up unwanted and unloved by her parents, an alcoholic father, the mother looking to escape her dreary home life (more parallels with Frederick). We initially meet Esa as a young child, being dropped off by her father at her paternal grandmother’s house somewhere in a rural Atlantic coast province (I suspect Nova Scotia). Her grandmother (“Gam”) is kind to her and Esa is entranced, not only by the house but by its proximity to the sea. She loves to beach comb and shows her Gam what she has found.

On every windowsill of Gam’s house, and in the corners of every room, and on top of every bureau and desk and end table and sideboard, upstairs and down, there were piles of grey pebbles, moonlit shells, brittle brown seaweeds, and the legs of tiny crabs. It was as if the sea had crept in and scattered its salty treasures throughout the house, and Gam had gone about her business somehow without noticing. The air in the house was pregnant with salt, and every surface was powdered with sand dust.

To a young girl who was used to playing in a dirty yard, tethered to a clothesline, Gam’s house was magical, comforting and safe too. However, her stay ended all too soon when her mother makes an appearance and takes her back home.

The next time we meet Esa, she is a twentysomething woman who is pregnant after a night spent with Serge, her coworker at a small printing company in the city. However, Serge later reveals he has a fiancee, and this is devastating to Esa. Finding she can no longer work in the same office as Serge, she decides to leave and go to Gam’s house to have the baby. She feels it is the only reasonable choice she has, and she is also influenced by her childhood memories of that wonderful place. However, once she gets there, all is not what she recalls.¬†Gam seems different; she wants to be called Alice. The house too has changed for Esa in an appreciable way: it has been swept clean of all the seashore acquisitions.

The rocks and shells and sea anemones and crab legs had all disappeared. The main floor of the house was spotless, with everything precisely in order. The salt dust had been swept away and banished.

Gam/Alice allows her to stay, however, and Esa is apprehensive and continues to have nightmares about the end of the world, either by fire or by ice. Then, a fire does occur in the house and this is the hinge that The Clock of Heaven swings on: nothing is the same after this. Gam/Alice is in the hospital, badly burned, the house is badly damaged by the fire and Esa is an emotional mess. Her life begins a downward spiral into derangement and self-neglect. The baby inside her continues to grow and Esa must survive in the house without electricity or running water. An elderly neighbour named Cyril helps her with the necessities of life, but Esa is determined to survive and driven to discover who the real Alice is and why all her letters to her Gam (with money inside) have been saved and hidden under the carpet for all these years.

The Clock of Heaven was published in 2008 by Inanna Publications, and while I typically only publish reviews on new releases, I had to go back and read Ms. Day’s first book to see how it compared to The Madrigal. I somewhat liked Esa’s story better than Frederick’s, mainly due to the fantastic imagery Ms. Day so effortlessly creates regarding Esa’s stay at her Gam’s house and the state of Esa’s mental decay alongside the physical decay of the house, where the outside soon moves in through a gaping hole that the fire created, creating a virtual Noah’s ark in the process. I was totally drawn into Esa’s plight and continually wondered how she would come out of it if indeed she would. Both of Ms. Day’s books have an element of intrigue about them; something that kept lurking around the fringes of the story, yet imperceptibly moving closer and closer all the time until the issue had to be confronted. I highly recommend Ms. Day’s books as some of the finest examples of literary fiction that I have read. The Clock of Heaven was a 2009 IPPY Award for Literature Silver Medal winner.

The Clock of Heaven
Inanna Publications

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