Instructor by Beth Follett

When I first received Instructor from Breakwater Books, I was immediately taken in by not only its cover image, a watercolour of a child with a large heart (and brain) but the singular title as well. Who is this Instructor? The heft of the book (just under 300 pages) and the fine quality of the paper Breakwater chose to print this book on spoke volumes before I even read a word. Impressive, but what about the story? Equally as impressive, for just as many reasons.

Instructor is the story of a young woman, Ydessa (pronounced ee-dessa) Bloom, whose husband Roger dies when the small plane he is piloting crashes into Baptiste Lake in Northern Ontario. Ydessa, in her overwhelming grief, flees Toronto to the lake with a bottle of scotch and rents a cottage from Barri Grew. On the road to her cabin, she swerves to avoid hitting a young boy, Henry Rattle. Henry’s mother has died and his father has little to do with him, preferring to spend time with his bees. Henry, (who appears to be on the spectrum), immediately takes to Ydessa for reasons incomprehensible to her. Ydessa sequesters herself in the cottage, drinking heavily, grieving and going over her life up until the loss of Roger. This occurs in the summer of 1988.

SHE STOOD A long time in front of the bottle, then moved away. Everything that could happen between her and Roger had happened. How was this possible? She had tried to receive him, take him in, incapable of understanding the nature of the overwhelming love she felt for him and why she had never truly reciprocated his love. Was this true? Yes. A fact. The fact of her past omissions was a torment.

Henry patiently waits outside her cottage, pitching stones until either Ydessa emerges or he is invited in.

The pitched stones knocked against cach other. Women such as his mother and Ydessa, beautiful, pent up: he could not get near them. The clouds and the sky and the lake are beautiful. When blue is involved, everything is beautiful, otherwise things can  be dreary, depressing. Drawing is beautiful. But more than any of his finished drawings, the act of drawing is beautiful. Waiting, anticipating — these are terrible. This waiting at Ydessa's back door was like wanting to run in two directions at the same time. 
 On the third day, late in the afternoon, Ydessa rapped on the windowpane. Henry's head snapped around. She pointed he should  go to the side door.
 She held the door open, inviting him in. Well, my little soldier.
 Henry bent to remove his sneakers. [...]
 Henry stood by the door, barefoot, excitement coming alive. 

Henry is so smitten with Ydessa that he wants to give her his late mother’s sapphire ring, which she feels she cannot accept.

Henry looked at her, alert. You'll keep it won't you?
Yes, I'll wear it for now.

Of course, Ydessa cannot stay at the cottage forever, although a sort of temporary healing takes place in her conversations with Barri and her interactions with Henry, who of course, does not want her to leave Baptiste at all. She is also introduced to yoga by a chain-smoking friend of Barri’s, Teresa. Yet, Ydessa has obligations to her parents back in Toronto, and her overbearing (and wealthy) mother-in-law who lives in New York City. Roger must get a proper burial and his affairs dealt with. Ydessa finds herself financially secure, but emotionally bereft.

Later, to escape her drunken and erratic lifestyle, Ydessa decides to live in an ashram in Vermont where she lives a life of austerity for some ten years before returning to Toronto in 2003 to open her own yoga studio. It is here that Henry finds her, the young boy now a man of twenty-five and dealing with his own demons after his father moved them away from the lake to Picton, Ontario. This time period in Henry’s life is stormy and unsettled, in stark contrast to Ydessa’s peaceful life in the ashram.

A complex novel, Ms. Follett’s endearing characters and her near-poetic prose make for an enthralling read.

Midnight came on slowly, fog approaching in increments from the far side of the lake, sliding sleuth-like and elusive, as if pausing to assess its own progress. Twenty metres, another twenty. Pause. Wait. She watched the night, grey, now lilac, now violet, the almostfull moon rising behind the scrim of fog, its light breaking up, dispersing, a sailing halo in the violet vapour, shadows breathing. At long last the fog cleared, and a shimmering path of white light split the lake in two.

I also highlighted many parts that struck me as inspired such as:

  • Every day brings with it some newly extinct or threatened or endangered species, everyday a pain in his chest becomes more pronounced on account of all he is forever saying goodbye to, infinitely becoming, infinitely passing away.
  • So many things one feels cannot be put into words, yet the force of the wish to is enormous.
  • What of the world worth measuring could steady the ground that is forever slipping from under one’s feet?

One vexing aspect of the novel is the lack of quotation marks and it is often difficult at first to know whose voice is narrating the various passages and who is speaking. Particularly so with the scenes that occur at the lake where several characters are interacting. However, this gives the novel a kind of ethereal aspect to it as the narrative slips between present and past, waking and sleeping, and yes, dreaming too. Sometimes it is Ydessa we are hearing, sometimes Barri, and even Henry’s solitary ponderings. But once the rhythm of the book gets into your reader’s soul, it really floods the senses and the result is an extremely rewarding and transcendent reading experience.

Throughout the book, there is no one “Instructor”. The lake plays a centring, grounding-type of an instructor, as does life in the ashram. People at peace with themselves (like Barri and Teresa) are good instructors. In the end, it is what settles one that is important. Henry, on the other hand, is forever unsettled, particularly his adult self.

Instructor is a book that will resonate with you long after you put it down. Highly recommended for a good immersive read.

A Miramichi Reader “Best Fiction of 2021” choice!

Beth Follett is the founder and publisher of Pedlar Press, a Canadian literary house. Her first novel, Tell It Slant (Coach House Books, 2001), a retelling of Djuna Barnes’s 1936 novel Nightwood, met with critical acclaim. Her poetry, prose and nonfiction work have appeared in BrickBest Canadian Poetry 2019, and elsewhere. She lives in St John’s, NL.

  • Publisher : Breakwater Books (April 1 2021)
  • Language : English
  • ISBN-10 : 155081866X
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1550818666

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