Karen Smythe is the author of a short-story collection, Stubborn Bones, and Figuring Grief. Her stories have also appeared in Grain, the Fiddlehead, the Antigonish Review, and the Gaspereau Review. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.
This Side of Sad (2017, Goose Lane Editions) is Ms. Smythe’s first novel and it is a singularly fascinating one. It is told in the voice of Maslen, a fifty-ish woman who has just lost her husband James in what appears to be an accidental shooting behind their farm in Ontario. This, along with her recent health issues causes Maslen to consider her life and what, if anything she could have done for James (for she questions if it truly was an accident).
What if I could watch our life together unfold again, if I could unreel it, exhume it, observe it scene by random scene? Not only that one day or week, or even the months before, but the years before that: the whole of our life. Would that do it? Would that be enough to get me there, to the truth about what happened to James? To us? If I could see my entire life from one step back, watch it but at the same time remove myself from it, then maybe the true story about James and me would reveal itself. It might emerge like an apparition, oozing out of the spaces between the scrambled episodes.
So Maslen makes herself remember (“Make yourself remember. Go on.”), and it is these “scrambled episodes” which make up the pages of This Side of Sad. She begins by remembering the men in her life before James: Ted the medical student, then before him, Josh who became a famous male model. This takes us all the way back to her high school years. Begin, Beguiled, Beloved, Bereft and Blessed compose the book’s five parts, although they all flow together, despite the “scrambled” appearance of Maslen’s memories. However, her recollections build the story for us, at first dispersed like Legos or building blocks on the floor, then slowly reassembled forming a full picture of her past. Often, one thought will lead into other areas of life as is often the case. One day while visiting James’ father Lou in a nursing home, she muses that perhaps James had simply grown tired of his father:
Is it instinctive, this tiring of people you are close to? Perhaps it’s a primitive safeguard built into our reptile brains. Elderly parent, aggravating teenagers, long-time spouses – perhaps it’s a primal kind of coping, a natural weaning, a gradual hardening of heart before the end comes. Perhaps it makes for a smaller hole to fill after they’ve gone. I don’t know.
It is the writing of each of these “episodes” that is most arresting, especially when you step back and consider the whole of the narrative, disjointed as it might appear. I dog-eared several pages (I know, but it makes it easier for this reviewer to find the parts I especially like later on) that contained thoughtful (and thought-provoking) introspections for later re-reading. Two other author-reviewers used the adjective “wry” in describing This Side of Sad (“wry debut novel”, “wry humour”) which made me turn to a dictionary to see the context of this word. “Cleverly and often ironically or grimly humorous” was one definition – and it is accurate in this context- but I also liked this alternative: “bent, twisted, or turned usually abnormally to one side”. Maslen’s thoughts of her past require bending, twisting and turning in order to make sense of them as well as to make them fit together in her mind.
I was quite drawn to the character of Maslen, admiring her strength in the face of her surgery as well as James’ death shortly thereafter. Her ability to look back and glean what she can from her past relationships in order to alleviate (or ameliorate) the grieving process is admirable as well, and one that may hold the key for those in a similar predicament. There were moments when I did feel like putting this book aside (such as when she – ahem – details certain aspects of her liasons), but her train of thought quickly moved on to a different topic, recapturing my interest. As well, Maslen’s thoughts evolve as she matures and progresses through her friends, her sister Gina, her mother’s mental demise and the gradual drifting away of Josh and Ted.
As I mentioned at the outset, This Side of Sad is a fascinating book and one I enjoyed reading as time went on. Not exactly a diary, journal or a memoir, This Side of Sad is a collection of “scrambled episodes” that map out one woman’s travels down the road of past relationships and how they form who she is today. Added to the 2018 longlist for a “The Very Best!” Book Award for Fiction.