Rosalie Osmond’s second novel, Broken Symmetry, centres on the Wentzell family. The events unfold from 1943 to 1959 and mostly occur in their shared family home in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. When the novel opens, sisters Emma and Virtue are married to two brothers, Nathan and Obadiah. The men own a small barbershop together which sits next to the shared house. The hundred-year-old home was originally designed by a sea captain “centred on the eternal rather than temporal reward.” It is a house of function rather than prosperity or even comfort, and their intimate domestic arrangement forms the root of significant tension and hurt.
The birth of Emma and Nathan’s daughter, Eleanor, brings many longstanding stresses to the surface. For example, as Emma and Virtue struggle to accept the trajectory of their lives, dark emotions cloud young Eleanor’s perception. From a young age she internalizes the tension between her mother and her aunt, and the narrator wonders: “What words were forming inside her for ‘hurt,’ ‘Mommy sad,’ ‘Virtue cross,’ ‘Mommy and Virtue both want me’?” These “tiny hooks of unease” that prick Eleanor’s psyche as a child expand throughout the narrative, becoming holes that are harder to repair and creating tears that become more difficult to mend as things fall apart.
Osmond effectively details both the beauty and the hardship of Lunenburg in this period. Spectacular views of the harbour or nights spent skating on the frozen water are juxtaposed alongside the realities and refuse of shipbuilding and fishing. There are gestures to the intertwined impacts of industry, poverty, war, and technological change, and the novel raises complicated questions about education, religion, domestic violence, gender equality, and inheritance.
Likewise, Osmond’s characters are not idealized; instead, Broken Symmetry offers a complex look at the struggles of life in a period defined by chance and change. Each character longs for something just beyond their grasp— freedom, social status, control, contentment, a child, a second chance, a new beginning. Readers gain access to this longing through a shifting narrative voice that moves in an almost kaleidoscope fashion from Nathan, to Virtue, to Emma, to Eleanor, and onto many viewpoints throughout the familial saga.
At points, this movement becomes perplexing. The rivalry between Emma and Virtue’s numerous siblings becomes a web-like subplot swirling around the central spectacle of their lives, but the gestures to different characters, their histories, and their contemporary struggles can be overwhelming. When I put down the novel, I found myself wondering what had happened to some of the characters or feeling confused at the tidiness of their storylines. However, many of these lingering feelings could well be addressed in Osmond’s first novel Waldenstein, or may be answered in the final novel of the trilogy that is currently in the works.
Though from the outside there may be a kind of harmonious and simplistic symmetry to their lives, readers learn early on that balance is a façade in the Wentzell abode. Beneath the ordinary veil lies a very complicated reality, and the Wentzells navigate jealousy, economic struggles, social impediments, and overarching feelings of unexplored contempt and regret. Early in the novel, Emma asks herself: “Are there profound secrets?” By the end of the novel, readers are not given a tidy or an easy answer. Sometimes the things that haunt us are our most basic desires, and we learn important lessons by giving up control. Sometimes we are forced to reckon with the fact that we may have no control to give up in the first place. Osmond makes palpable this struggle, and crafts a gripping tale that explores the generational power of longing, potential, and pain.
Broken Symmetry has been shortlisted for the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award (Fiction) for the 2020 Atlantic Book Awards.
About the Author: Rosalie Osmond is a native of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, but spent a large part of her adult life in England. Educated at Acadia University, Bryn Mawr College, and Cambridge University, she has taught English literature at the university level in Canada and the U.K. She has published three works of nonfiction. Broken Symmetry is her second novel. Her first novel, Waldenstein, was short-listed for the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award and she is the 2019 recipient of the Rita Joe poetry prize. She is married with three children and six grandchildren, all of whom love to come and visit in the summer.
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