My Theatre of Memory: A Life in Words By Adriana A. Davies

Adriana A. Davies is the daughter of Italian immigrants to Canada. Born in Grimaldi, Italy, in 1943, she remembers the ocean voyage to her new country, and disembarking at Pier 21 in Halifax. Her family eventually settled in Edmonton, where she grew up.

Hers is the immigrant’s story of hard work and ambition, and the confidence that comes with a strong and supportive family network and community. The world of the 1960s and 70s was her oyster. She briefly considered becoming a journalist, but decided to pursue academics instead, only to find on graduation that job opportunities for a woman with a Ph.D. in comparative literature were rare indeed. She started taking research jobs as placeholders–creating entries for an encyclopedia of antiques, then researching the people in the paintings at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In Canada, she was one of the team who helped shape Mel Hurtig’s ambitious The Canadian Encyclopedia and later went on to play a key role in the development of Alberta’s museum system as Executive Director of the Alberta Museums Association. She became a Member of the Order of Canada in 2010 for her contributions to making the country’s heritage more accessible to the general public.

And that was just her professional life. She was also a wife and mother of two who became a performance poet when her decades-old marriage broke down, and after that an writer of non-fiction books.

Davies writes that when she submitted her first manuscript, for a book about the P.E.I.-born artist John Benjamin (J.B.) Taylor, her editor “did me an enormous favour,” by saying that “all the facts were there but that it was ‘dry.’ She observed, ‘You know more about this man than anyone else. Get inside his head and write about what he thought and felt.’”

Unfortunately, Davies did not carry that lesson through to her biography. The reporter’s keen eye for detail mixes poorly with the encyclopedist’s and historian’s investment in minutiae. Each chapter reads as though Davies is writing the biographical note for an exhibit. She shares much detail but little of herself.

A case in point: she received a Canada Council grant that allowed her to study for her doctorate in London in the late 60s. The grant was rich enough to pay all of her expenses during her studies, and also allow her to travel. She visited some of the family members she and her parents had left behind in Italy when they emigrated to Canada, then went on to tour other parts of Italy and Europe.

Chapters later in the book, she writes about having discovered a “passion” for religious art during her travels in Europe. But at no point while discussing those travels does she talk about the art she’d seen with anything that would suggest the all-consuming engagement of passion. She writes as if she’s reporting on what someone else saw and did, and while she even discusses the clothes she wore at particular events 50 years earlier, she fails to put her self in the picture. She dedicates an entire chapter to Leonard Cohen with whom she was infatuated as a university student. One of hers English professors was a friend of Cohen’s, and invited him to speak at the university. Davies recounts their hour-long conversation at a party on campus – notable mostly for the fact that he didn’t make a pass at her – as if it marked a turning point in her life but if there was a lesson that she took from the encounter she doesn’t share it.

It is only in the last chapters of Theatre of Memory that Davies truly draws back the curtain and enters the stage as a member of the company and not simply the chorus recounting what had happened in encyclopedic detail. She talks about her isolation during COVID, and her frustration with being unable to see her family, her depression and what finally shook her out of her lethargy. And that’s too bad. This would have been a much more interesting book if she’d taken the same approach all the way through. As it is, while the author has obviously lived a worthwhile life in interesting times, the book is of more of a record of fact than an engaging memoir.

Adriana A. Davies, Order of Canada, Cavaliere d’Italia and Queen’s Diamond and Platinum Jubilee Medals recipient, was born in Italy, grew up in Canada and has a doctorate from the University of London.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Guernica Editions (April 1 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 262 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771837705
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771837705

Originally from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, K.S. Covert lives and works in Ottawa. She is a former journalist whose work has appeared in nearly every newspaper in the country. She published her first novel, The Petting Zoos (Dundurn Press) in 2022, and is plugging away at her second.