Every book is a universe unto itself, a unique and precious treasure to be discovered. It was with such sentiment and much pleasure, therefore, that I accepted to review John Portelli’s new novel Everything but Fajza. The book arrived by express post, a new friend I will forever cherish. From its velvety-soft, fuchsia cover, illustrated with an abstract one-line drawing of Fajza’s pensive face, I was immediately drawn to read the story. I was immersed in the plot from the first page, taken in by the live breaking news from CP24, CBC Radio and various other local media outlets reporting Fajza’s shooting which has taken place in a seedy neighbourhood of Toronto’s west end. The novel is a page-turner from the first words. With trepidation, we are led to wait in suspense to discover Fajza’s fate and hopefully the arrest of a culpable someone.
As if standing at the centre of an art gallery, one by one, we are met with an exhibit of detailed portraits of eight pivotal characters in Fajza’s life. Each one speaks in the first person. Each character occupies the space of one chapter in sequence. From the second to the second last chapters, we read the relationship of each person to Fajza and the quasi confessions and admissions of guilt from Sergio (Fajza’s husband); Safja (her older sister); Piero (her previous boyfriend with whom she got pregnant); Rona (her mother); Joe (her father); Maria (Piero’s mom); Serena ( Piero’s new girlfriend); and Stephen (Piero’s father). Each self-revelation is a clue card to be examined in view of the dismal circumstances of the main character. Just as in the murder mystery game Clue, we anxiously want to discover who is responsible for Fajza’s shooting and most of all, their motive.
The suspense builds with each revelation, as each one reveals details about Fajza and about themselves and their involvement with her. As we scour each character’s words for evidence, we begin to comprehend the effect each person has had on Fajza’s life and the complexity and importance of each smallest act and thought. It is not until we get close to the end of the book that we can begin to piece together the Rubik’s cube’s multifaceted trap which had been inadvertently set by everyone to position Fajza in her tragic ending. The last chapter takes place at Faiza’s wake. To the grief of everyone is lovely, sensitive, juxtaposed an array of photographs of Fajza’s brief life. Set on her coffin, each photograph from birth to death, almost like a life review. She was a beautiful child. A very loved, intelligent and wonderful girl. A great human being with ideals, talent and kindness to share. Everyone feels guilt and remorse at having contributed to her death somehow and not having been able to prevent her sad ending.
Like the tentacles of an octopus, the net of destiny unfolds to strangle the life of an innocent woman. She is at the center, as a proverbial girl in the spider net, each guilty party, if at first seemingly innocuous and well-meaning, dangerous and lethal once part of the dance macabre they set in motion as an entity. Each one becomes a string commingling to create a nefarious, albeit unplanned plot which unintentionally results in the death of a beautiful, innocent soul. Each participant in this net of fate is driven by beliefs: personal, cultural, religious, political, as well as genetic character predispositions and traits that lead them to sins of omission as well as premeditated, calculated actions congruent with their natural inclinations and above-mentioned beliefs.
In this beautifully written novel, the plot of destiny is laid bare and superbly illustrated by the author through the detailed self confessions of each person involved in Fajza’s life. The nuances of culpability, albeit minimal in some and more pronounced in others, twist and braid an ever-strengthening web, which protracted through the space-time of events in Fajza’s life, place her at the centre of its stranglehold. Fajza becomes the proverbial sacrificial lamb to expiate all their psychomachias and fallacies of distorted thought, fears, limiting beliefs, jealousies, greed, culture clash, upholding of honour at any cost, personal agendas, mental illness and ignorance.
The Greeks believed in the power of fate or destiny. They believed that everything happens for a reason and that our life path is predestined by the Gods, hence we are subjected to it without any option to escape from it. There are eight people or characters around Fajza. She is the fulcrum of an arachnid/octopus-like entity we call destiny, each limb innocent as of itself, replete with its own self-survival strategies, beliefs, fears, aspirations, upbringing, genetic expression of temperament, and character, yet invisibly merging together into a synergistic catalyst for Fajza’s demise.
In our contemporary world where technology and science predominate, we often forget to think of the possible effect of destiny in our own existence. I am very grateful to John Portelli for bringing to light the fact that fate is not only a word relegated to pre-scientific societies. He illustrates and reiterates brilliantly that it is very much an active, ever-present principle in human dynamics, always ready to deploy its tendrils through the tapestry of our own reality. Perhaps we have just changed the words fate and destiny to the power of intention and manifestation, as well as the spooky effects of the quantum world with its possibilities of entanglement.
Fajza the victor, the successful, the invincible is vanquished by the very people who supposedly love her. In the story, we read that she was unique. She was flawless, but that was not enough to save her. She is the quintessential tragic hero and as readers, we love her for all her wonderful qualities as well as her weaknesses, and suffer along with her and for her. We don’t want it to end like this. We wish we could save her life and put the suffering and blame onto the shoulders of the ones responsible. We can relate to Fajza. We can also relate to the fact that in real life, as in this novel, there are no happy endings.
In a quote I recently and synchronistically found in Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary, A Year of Favourite Books, I found a quote befitting of Fajza written by George Meredith, from his work In Modern Love:
‘Tis morning, but no morning can restore
What we have forfeited. I see no sin:
The wrong is mixed. In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:
We are betrayed by what is false within.
I don’t know if the ancient Greeks believed in a determinist’s fatalistic universe, or if they believed they had a degree of free will, but regardless, eventual outcomes are predefined, with fate playing a key part, laying down events if not directly, then in an overarching inevitable manner.
I absolutely loved this novel. It had everything: intrigue, suspense, romance, socio-historical facts and gorgeous writing. I know that I will read Everyone but Fajza over and over again for the sheer pleasure of it. Translated from the Maltese by Irene Mangion and skillfully written by John Portelli, it is a highly acclaimed work published by The National Book Council and Horizons. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing the predicament each one of us is entwined in and the mysterious repercussions our liaisons can have on our own well-being and survival.
About the Author
John P. Portelli was born in Malta where, after completing a B.A. (Philosophy & Maltese, 1975), he taught history and modern languages at a secondary school and philosophy at a sixth form. In 1977 he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship and commenced his studies at McGill University from where he obtained an M.A. (1979) and a Ph.D. (1984). Currently, he is a professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, and the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at OISE, University of Toronto. He is Co-director of the Centre for Leadership and Diversity and a fellow of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. He has published 10 books including two books of poetry, and over 100 articles and chapters in books.
If you are looking for a light read, you will enjoy How to Murder a Marriageby Gabrielle St. George. It was a fun mystery novel that is perfect for readers who are not fans of hardcore mystery novels. This was the first book of mine that my son picked up and was excited to read and discuss with me. This made the reading experience special.
How to Murder a Marriage follows main character Gina Malone; Gina is a smart and sassy bestselling relationships advice author and expert on exes. She is an empty nester trying to live life on her own terms but meddles in other people’s affairs for a living.
As a relationship advice expert, Gina advises one of her readers to leave her husband. The reader goes missing shortly after communicating with Gina. Gina then realizes she has a stalker. The issue is that Gina’s job creates a lot of enemies. The stalker could be Gina’s vengeful ex-husband, the abusive ex of the missing woman, or her new crush’s crazy ex.
The setting of this story is a tiny tourist town on the Canadian shores of Lake Huron where Gina plans to renovate an old family cottage. The cottage is located on a lonely and empty stretch of beach which worked well in this story and made for some scary scenes and close encounters with Gina’s stalker. I loved the display of small-town Ontario living, showcasing both the good and the bad that comes with that.
I enjoyed the Author’s writing style and her portrayal of the main character Gina. I found Gina to be witty, sarcastic and possessed my brand of humour. This made her very likeable and relatable. There was a great cast of secondary characters supporting Gina as she tries to find where home is while dealing with the craziness that is currently her life.
“Maybe you can never go home again because everything in life is always changing, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe being home is about being at peace with whatever life throws at you, from wherever you are…Maybe I am my home”
I was kept engaged to the end, it was difficult to figure out how the story would evolve and end. I was completely surprised by the ending, which to me is a good thing with a mystery novel. I was left wondering what’s next which is great for a series. How to Murder a Marriage is the first in a series and I am looking forward to the others.
Thanks to Gabrielle St. George for an Advanced Reader Copy of this book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gabrielle St. George is a Canadian screenwriter and story-editor with credits on over 100 produced television shows, both in the USA and Canada. Her feature film scripts have been optioned in Hollywood. She is a member of the Writer’s Guild of Canada, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. Ms. St. George writes humorous mysteries and domestic noir about subjects of which she is an expert-mostly failed relationships, hence her debut soft-boiled series, The Ex-Whisperer Files, which launches with HOW TO MURDER A MARRIAGE. She is also the author of the non-fiction GAL GUIDE SERIES: How to Say So Long to Mr. Wrong, How to Know if He’s Having an Affair, and How to Survive the Love You Hate to Love. Gabrielle lives a wildly magical life on a fairy-tale farm along the Saugeen River and spends weekends at her 1930s cabin on the shores of Lake Huron with her partner (current coupling still alive and kicking) and their extremely disobedient dogs. When she’s not writing, painting, gardening, stargazing, moondancing, and daydreaming, she travels the world to visit her four fabulous children who live abroad.
ART IS MY FATHER-IN-LAW, ONCE REMOVED. (I’ve had another one come and go. Been around, you see.) My ex and I didn’t trouble Art with word of our divorce. He’ll go to his grave in blessed ignorance. I think. I’m still not sure that’s the right way to approach it, but it’s what we’ve settled on. It will probably save him some unnecessary, late-in-life pain and anguish. At least that’s the theory. I know it will save me some tough explaining.
Art is a model resident at the Whispering Pines Villa. (Everyone calls it the “Home”.) He is quiet and respectful. Undemanding. Polite. His insidious dementia has unlocked no monsters. Indeed, there are no monsters inside him to unlock. If anything, as his mind has begun slipping its lines, he has become even gentler and kinder.
I try to get out to visit Art a few times a year, sometimes with the grandson in tow. My ex goes out to the Home a little more often than I do, and she’s been a bit better about bringing Julian along. The thing is, I only get him on alternating weekends. There’s stuff to do. You know how it works. One can only expect so much from a deadbeat dad, after all.
Doris Fly’s room is a couple of doors down the hall from Art’s at Whispering Pines. She’s in her nineties but she doesn’t miss a thing. I don’t know but I think she has figured out what my ex and I don’t want Art to know. Doris Fly always leaves me believing that she can see right through me.
“Why don’t you and your wife ever come visit him together?” “You know. Work schedules. Busy lives. It’s hard to coordinate.” “Yes, I know. I know. Ninety-six years on, I know a whole lot more than you and most people think.”
Trouble in the Sunroom
DORIS FLY CAN BE AS MEAN AS CAT-DIRT (to use an old expression of my mother’s).
Nurse Giesbrecht and Doris share a love for the American televangelists. Sharp at nine on weekday mornings—after breakfast when all the residents are wheeled into the sunroom so the staff can clean up and have their coffee—the nurse will reach up and set the channel on the big flat-screen high on the wall to tune in the Reverend Benny Hinn or Dr. Robert Schuller. “Just for an hour,” she’ll say. “Give Doris her due for an hour. Then the rest of the day is yours.” But, inevitably, before the hour is up, Burt Pawlowski will have gotten hold of the remote and switched the channel to ESPN to see the sports. Or Mr. Sahota will have grabbed it and switched to the multicultural channel.
“Gobbledygook!” Doris will shriek then, as loudly as she can. It’s the same when Mrs. Zhang gets the remote and resets the channel to the Fairchild Network so she can watch Hong Kong Satellite News or, on Fridays, Mandarin Profile. “Gobbledygook! Gobbledygook! Nurse Giesbrecht! Get yerself to the sunroom, please. There’s an insurrection happening in here.”
After a while, strange things begin happening to the remote. First it shows up it in the cutlery tray for the Home’s big industrial dishwasher. The kitchen staff find it there, drooping like a Dali clock after the ultra-high temperatures of the wash and dry cycles have had their way with it. A week later its replacement departs the building hidden in somebody’s adult diaper. Then the replacement for that remote somehow ends up behind the wheel of Mr. Sahota’s wheelchair when he rolls back from the crafts table one day to find himself a better pair of blunt scissors.
“Now see what you’ve done. You’ve crunched it,” Doris says to him. “I’ve been set up,” Mr. Sahota answers. “Nonsense,” Doris says back to him. “Just clumsy and careless, as usual. And now you’ve broken it. Serves you right, all of yiz.” They aren’t buying it. None of them. “Doris Fly!” says Burt, accusingly. “Fly!” manages Mrs. Zhang. “Swat the fly!” cries Mrs. Wiebe who lately, and rather obviously, has developed quite a fondness for Mr. Sahota. “Brutta vespa!” Mrs. Zeppole calls out in a muffled voice from inside the sunroom’s unisex bathroom. “Don’t yiz point yer filthy fingers at me, ya great lot of beached whales. My conscience is clear,” Doris answers, looking each of them straight in the eye over the top of her reading glasses before returning, unconcerned, to her knitting. Just then, and to everyone’s amazement, the Reverend Benny Hinn’s voice booms out of the flat-screen, as if on cue: “Ay-men!” Doris looks up at them from her knitting and nods. Believing firmly in small miracles, she knows that she has just witnessed two in succession: the destruction of the remote and the Reverend Benny Hinn’s blessing of the act. A perfect and very public vindication. Small miracles. She has often commented that many of them happen every day and that we’d all know that if only we’d keep an eye out.
On and on it goes.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Nurse Giesbrecht announces, eventually, to the whole group at breakfast. She’s sounding cross. “Six remotes in as many weeks. We might have to get rid of the TV altogether if this keeps up.”
Doris Fly can barely contain a dismissive chuckle. Without the big flat-screen playing in the sunroom, the care aides might have to start doing an honest day’s work (instead of talking gobbledygook all day about their relatives in the Philippines). She recognizes Nurse Giesbrecht’s comment for what it is: a hollow threat.
The Build-up to Christmas
IT’S 4:30 P.M. ON SATURDAY, DECEMBER 12TH—the date and time foretold on the posters that have been up all around the Home since the last jack-o’-lantern was dispatched to the compostables bin at the beginning of November. Excitement is in the air.
“Guarda! Guarda! Che gioia!” Mrs. Zeppole calls out mockingly—as she does every year—when relatives first begin showing up at the front door of the Home for the Whispering Pines Christmas party. They stamp their feet, remove their gloves, scarves and hats and rub their hands together for warmth. “Guarda! Guarda! Arrivono i Natalini/Pasqualini! Che gioia!” No one within 20 kilometres speaks a word of Italian but all naïvely assume that Mrs. Zeppole must again be offering up a cheery Christmas greeting from the Old Country.
At this year’s event—like the others before it—the residents’ big beige chairs and wheelchairs have been arranged in a circle around the Home’s perky little tree. The flat-screen TV is tuned to a radio station playing Christmas carols. Nurse Giesbrecht is dressed as a rather over-upholstered Santa and she stands in the middle with Julian and several other children who have been conscripted as elves to hand out anonymous gifts. Doris Fly, as usual, wonders what any of this has to do with the Lord. It is a question that has troubled Art, too, but his manners always prevent him from joining her in asking it publicly.
The party is as festive a gathering as these things can ever be when held under bright, fluorescent lights in a big room that always smells of urine and Pine-Sol. Sons, daughters, nieces and nephews crouch next to the residents like over-earnest Keg waiters: helping them unwrap their gifts, cooing and enthusing, pausing frequently to check smartphones and watches. Meanwhile, fuelled by too much holiday baking and too little supervision, their kids run amok, tut-tutted only occasionally by the staff when they roar through the kitchen. It’s all kind of surreal: the adults’ guilty faces betray the fact that most of them visit their slowly expiring moms and dads and aunts and uncles only on seasonal holidays. It’s more than surreal, in fact. It’s abjectly sad.
This year, after things have subsided somewhat and other relatives and I are gathering up mountains of gift-wrap for recycling, I notice that Doris Fly has Julian cornered. He tells me later that she first wanted to know why she got two electric nose-hair trimmers from Santa and none of the others received even one—not even Mr. Sahota who, she said, could use one for each of his nostrils and a couple more for his ears. “Is this some kind of sick joke?” Julian hadn’t a clue what to say to her, of course. I think, no, I know that the poor kid finds Doris Fly frightening. I don’t blame him. I hurry over to prevent a cross-examination and when I reach them I can hear that the questioning has turned more sinister.
“Tell me the names of everyone who lives in your house.”
She asks him the question in a deceptively singsongy voice, but I know this is nothing less than evidence-gathering, pure and simple, meant to prove or disprove a theory—a theory that I’m deathly afraid she’s already shared with Art, damn her. Julian begins to answer.
“Well, at Daddy’s there’s Daddy, then our cats Marx and Lenin …” “Julian, come with me. Your face and hands are all sticky from the Christmas baking.” Before he can answer further, I march him away to the en suite sink and toilet in Art’s room to clean him up.
Time to Go
“FETCH YOUR COAT OFF GRANDPA’S BED, THERE’S A GOOD BOY,” I TELL HIM. “It’s almost time to head home, son.” Julian gives Art a big hug as we prepare to leave. He really does love his Grandpa. I think to myself that I must do a better job of getting out to the Home with him more often next year. Meanwhile, Doris Fly is hovering outside the door. “Not so fast, mister.” “Julian, give Mrs. Fly a hug too,” I tell him. “And a kiss on the cheek,” she adds. He looks up at me with a “Do I have to?” expression on his face. “Julian. Give Mrs. Fly a kiss on the cheek.” “I’ve got a gift for him,” she says, once that important formality has been taken care of. “Yiz’ll have to come with me to get it.” We follow the whine of her motorized wheelchair into her chaotic room. Once there, she finds the wrapped gift on a low shelf and hands it to him. “That’s very kind. What do you say, Julian?” “Thank you, Mrs. Fly.” “Yiz’r not to open it till Christmas morning, understand?” “We understand, Doris,” I tell her. “Thank you, again.” “Yiz have yerselves a blessèd Christmas, now. And make some room for the Lord in it, for God’s sake.”
And so, after putting Julian’s gift package in the car, we at last pull out of the Whispering Pines parking lot and drive home through blowing snow. I slip a Christmas CD in the player, Julian and I sing along and Doris Fly flies out of our thoughts, at least for a week or so. Until Christmas Day.
HAVING SOMEHOW BEEN PUSHED TO THE BACK OF THE TREE, Doris Fly’s gift is almost missed. But then, Julian has a sharp eye for gift wrap. “One more, Dad!” When he finally tears off the paper and gets the box open, he is both delighted and puzzled. Inside the box? A brightly painted, hand-made wooden truck. Oh. And a remote. “Is the truck electric, Dad?” “No, son.” “I didn’t think so. So…Dad?” “Yes, Julian?” “It can’t make the truck go, then?” “No, I’m afraid not.” “Then I don’t get it.” “I’m not sure I do either, son.”
AND, WHO KNOWS? Maybe one day the up/down button—the one for changing channels—will make the wooden truck fly. It would be a small miracle. They do happen. So Julian and I will just have to wait and see. We’ll just have to “keep an eye out.”
(Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel by Lisa Moore, the celebrated author of February and Caught comes an exhilarating new novel from House of Anansi that asks: What makes a family? How does it shape us? And can we ever really choose who we love? Planned released date: May 3, 2022)
She knew the [pregnant}social worker wasn’t talking about the scratch on the bumper but expressing a solidarity. They were both terrified because they’d found themselves in situations beyond their control.
This would be the way of it for the foreseeable future. The social worker would not lift a hand help Trinity after this moment, but she was here now, they were joined together by the social worker’s grip on Trinity’s hands. They had shared something, the complicated fripperies of fate, the social worker had been brought to her knees in the hard sunshine, spit washing the child’s face, gripping the child’s hands, really looking at her, taking her in.
She was saying they both had to accept their situations.
I’m after ruining my stocking down here on the sidewalk, she said. The social worker was letting Trinity know that she was definitely worth the pair of stockings, maybe all the stockings in the world. But she was also telling Trinity that she was on her own, going forward. No matter what was on the other side of the screen door, Trinity would have to make do. All the social worker could offer was a concentrated moment of mutual sympathy. Then, with sudden vehemence, the social worker slapped her own neck. It was as if, like everything else about her body, the social worker’s hand had acted by itself. The print of her hand on her white neck and there on her palm, a squashed mosquito, which she held out for Trinity to see.
I got it, she whispered. She rubbed the dead insect off her hand onto her floaty dress and got up from her knees. The moment was over. The social worker was rapping on Mary Mahoney’s screen door.
They’d done the tour of the house and Mary Mahoney had sat with her back to the window, so all Trinity could really see was the foster parent’s hands loosely clasped on her lap and a stillness that was unnerving. Out of nowhere, creeping with stealth, a white and caramel cat leapt up onto Mary Mahoney’s lap.
One of the old woman’s hands buried itself in the fur, and her strong bony fingers arched and dove, over and over, in rhythm with the social worker’s speedy, unrelenting monologue about her doctor, whom she was convinced was a drunk.
This is Butterscotch, Mary Mahoney said, speaking over the social worker, who didn’t stop to acknowledge the interruption, although the old woman had already told them the cat’s name upstairs.
Nice cat, Trinity said.
Wasn’t nice when I got him, Mary Mahoney said. With the one eye hanging out on his cheek.
They’d had to take the eye, she said. Didn’t they? What else could they do? It took Trinity a moment to realize Mary Mahoney was addressing the cat. She’d thought at first it was a skill-testing question.
Couldn’t they just stick it back in? the social worker said. Why did it have to come out at all? She sounded plaintive, weary.
Mind you, they did a nice job, sewing it up. Smart, though, this cat. Like the whip. You couldn’t get one over on this old fellow.
They’d each fallen into a kind of stagnant pathos, hypnotized by the scratching hand on the cat’s back, the knuckles too large, rigorous. The social worker had nearly been swallowed by the couch, she was listing to the side and had to put her arm out straight on the armrest to keep from falling over. It was clear the social worker wanted to get going.
This is my last job, she said. Before I go on maternity leave.
You’ll want to get that bath poured, for the birth, Mary Mahoney said. Even at seven, Trinity understood Mary Mahoney was poking fun. It was clear to both of them the social worker was terrified of the birth, and maybe even the motherhood that would follow.
Trinity had never been told about giving birth, as the social worker called it, but she understood motherhood to be an inescapable torment that happened by accident and that “giving” was a euphemism. Doesn’t the baby get taken out of her somehow? What does giving have to do with it?
The cat turned its horrible face into a shadow cast by the armchair, and Trinity saw the cavity where the eye had been.
She thought of the stiffness in Mary Mahoney, the timbre of her voice, when she said the cat had needed privacy
It was the first sign that the new home might be better than the last. The tiers of frozen cookies, way too many for them to eat, was the second good sign. It was about show, and Trinity knew the importance of appearances. The cat’s missing eye was the third good sign. Mary Mahoney cared about appearances only to a point. She could love something no matter what it looked like or how vulnerable it was.
The two of them sat in silence while she social worker continued with her story about the last visit to the doctor. She suddenly rose up out of the couch and wrenched at her dress, pulling it tight against the medicine ball stomach, and approached the cookies, took a chocolate chip cookie in one hand, and held the other like a plate underneath her chin. She spoke through the crumbs on her lips.
I’m after leaving a few papers in the car, she said. That’s all that’s left, the papers. Then I’m done. I just have to get the papers, have you sign them, bring them back to the office, and get this thing out me.
She went out the front door, and they could hear the beep of her keys unlocking her car.
Will you help yourself to a cookie? Mary Mahoney asked.
Trinity said, No thank you. They said nothing more, as if they were in church. Then, the social worker was back. She laid the papers out on the side table. She stood with her hand on the small of her back.
Sometimes I feel like the spine is going to crack right off me, she said.
Mary Mahoney signed and signed. Then she gathered the papers and knocked the bottom edge of them against the desk and passed them to the woman. She picked up a square of paper towel, of which there were three, next to the cookie display, and she stacked three chocolate chip cookies, two shortbreads, and a date square and handed it to the social worker.
I couldn’t, the social worker said. I’m at high risk of diabetes. I’m not allowed to eat sugar.
My guess is that baby will be here in a couple of days. You can eat whatever you like, Mary Mahoney said. The social worker put one of her hands on her belly.
I need more time than that, she said.
Two days, Mary Mahoney said. Not a moment more, I guarantee.
I haven’t packed my bag, my hospital bag.
You best get at it. Tell the doctor that if you feel like it, you’ll be doing handstands or cartwheels or swinging from the light fixtures while you give birth. It’s your birth, you tell him.
He said I’ll be in so much pain I won’t know what I’m at.
Nonsense, Mary Mahoney said. And with a hand on the woman’s back, gave her a little nudge out the front door.
In the essay, “The Invisible Museum”, Laury Leite reminds us that “the world is a strange and unknown place, and that knowledge is nothing more than the search for the marvellous hidden in nature.” (117) Beyond the Gallery invites readers to think about the hidden marvels all around us—the artwork within and outside of the art gallery.
Beyond the Gallery’s subtitle is “An Anthology of Visual Encounters” and it delivers on its promise to provide a vast array of perspectives on art beyond the walls of the art gallery, even in a relatively brief collection of eight essays. The essays in this book will appeal to lovers of art and especially lovers of many different time periods of art history. In Beyond the Gallery, editors Liuba Gonzàles de Armas and Ana Ruiz Aguirre curate an interesting and eclectic group of essays written in Spanish and English by Canadian authors from the Spanish-speaking diaspora. The theme that binds the pieces together is not simply art, but the ways in which we might think about art outside of the typical gallery space, which usually seeks to dictate the way a viewer takes in the piece. They ask, what happens when art breaks free from the traditional gallery space? What kinds of unconventional art forms do we experience in the world? The eight essays in this collection offer a variety of perspectives on topics like classical art, political posters of revolution-era Cuba, and even the boom of artistic expression in tattooing in recent years.
Each piece is written in its author’s signature style (credit here goes to the translators of each essay), and many essays embrace not only an academic approach but play with perspective as well. One notable essay that does this is “El Telón de Picasso/Picasso’s Curtain: A Visual Encounter”, by Marcelo Donato. Donato begins by describing his first, impactful visual encounter of the curtain Picasso painted for a ballet in 1917. The essay then shifts into a creative-nonfictional retelling of the players and circumstances that influenced the creation of Picasso’s curtain. It ends with a section in which the curtain itself speaks. The switching of perspectives is a recurring theme in the entire collection of essays, which demands an open mind as the perspectives and styles shift from piece to piece, perhaps the way that a multi-artist exhibit might ask the viewer to approach different and unconventional pieces with an open mind.
As I was contemplating the essays in this book, I thought of my own experiences of art outside the gallery. This collection calls to mind the “Nuit Blanche” art festivals I have attended when artists take over the streets and other non-traditional spaces of a major city as new and exciting venues for their creations. There is something very energizing about seeing art deliberately taking over a space outside of the gallery. It becomes more accessible and interactive, and the authors of these essays seem to agree that great art can reside in many spaces. The spirit of Nuit Blanche is alive in this collection and it encourages readers to look to the classics, but also to the unexpected for inspiration.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ana Ruiz Aguirre is a Cuban-Canadian writer and researcher who writes about art through an interdisciplinary and contextual lens. Ana contributed to and co-edited Beyond the Gallery with the support of the Edmonton Heritage Council and the Alberta Public Interest Research Group, and she is currently working on her first monograph with the support of the Edmonton Arts Council. Ana’s doctoral research examining the strategy and impact of cultural diplomacy in North America was awarded a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and she was a Mitacs Globalink Research Scholar at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Ana was part of the Public Diplomacy and the Economy of Culture Research Group at Queen’s University, and has worked at Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales, and the Art Gallery of Alberta. She currently serves as Chair of the Fundraising and Advocacy Committee at Latitude 53, one of Canada’s oldest artist-run centres.
Liuba González de Armas is a diasporic Cuban cultural worker. She is both contributor and co-editor to Beyond the Gallery. Liuba holds a Bachelor of Arts in History of Art, Design, and Visual Culture from the University of Alberta and a Master’s degree in Art History from McGill University. Her MA research examined representations of women in Cuban revolutionary posters and was supported by a Canada Graduate Scholarship. Her areas of interest include activist printmaking, public art and propaganda, and cultural policy and diplomacy. Liuba has interned and worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Museum of American History, the Art Gallery of Alberta, and various artist-run centres across Canada. Most recently, she served as Halifax’s Young Curator at the art galleries of Mount Saint Vincent, Dalhousie, and Saint Mary’s universities before joining the civil service in Nova Scotia. Liuba approaches visual art of the Americas hemispherically, seeking to foreground spaces of transnational dialogue and solidarity.
Do you like challenging, experimental fiction? Do you like less focus on plot and more on meditations, philosophy, and transformation? Pull up a chair, because Because Venus Crossed An Alpine Violet On The Day That I Was Born by Mona Høvring and translated by Kari Dickson and Rachel Rankin is for you. If not, if you prefer more plot-driven novels and less time in exploring thoughts and self, you absolutely will not enjoy this novel. However, as a solid lover of challenging and experimental fiction, Because Venus was exactly for me, and it’s been a while since I enjoyed such a tightly written, magical, and thought-provoking novel. It won the 2018 Norwegian Critics’ Prize for Literature, and so it’s a delight to read it in translation – while I can’t directly compare the original Norwegian text with the English, I can say that Ella, the narrator, has a strong and unique voice, and the language use is honestly delightful. Kari Dickson and Rachel Rankin did a wonderful job in translation.
Ella and her sister Martha head to a small Norwegian village in the mountains, to stay in a hotel and let Martha rest after a mental breakdown. While Ella embraces the holiday and carefully observes their temporary surroundings with a sense of wonder and peace, Martha shows little interest in the hotel, the other guests, the hotel workers, or her sister. Ella befriends Ruth, a member of the staff of the hotel, and Dani, Ruth’s lover. Before Ella is able to realize her own attraction to Dani, Martha calls her out on it during breakfast, and after a confused argument, vanishes from the hotel. Given the gift of time and space while waiting for Martha to come back, Ella explores who she is without the responsibility of her sister, learning about her sense of self and her preferences, as well as leaving her room to explore a relationship with Dani.
This is a relatively short novel, clocking in at 142 pages. Høvring, and Dickson and Rankin, did not waste a word, bringing us deep inside Ella’s mind as she goes on this trip to the country. Ella’s thoughts and observations about the hotel and the village are funny and endearing, and we get to watch Ella gain confidence, rethink the path her life has taken so far, and take a few chances. Like I said at the beginning of this review, this is not a book for those who like a plot-driven read, but for those who enjoy a thoughtful study of a character, Because Venus will not disappoint. An excellent novel in translation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mona Høvring is the author of six poetry collections and four novels. Her previous novels include the acclaimed Something That Helps (2004), The Waiting Room in the Atlantic (2012), winner of the Unified Language Prize, and Camilla’s Long Nights (2013), nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Because Venus Crossed an Alpine Violet on the Day that I Was Born won the 2021 Dobloug Prize, the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature, was a finalist for the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize, and was included on numerous critics’ Best of 2018 book lists.
Introspective and lyrical, I am the Earth the Plants Grow Through by Jack Hannan takes us on a cross-country trip through time, away from Montreal of the 1970s and Montreal of the present day, following a love story and an art story. Hannan sinks us into the story of Tomas and Marie: Tomas, the photographer son of a Prince Edward Island fisherman, and Marie, the engineer daughter of an Algerian immigrant, meet while Marie is married to another man, a painter. Drawn to one another, Marie ends up leaving her husband and entering a relationship leading to marriage, and a child, while also acting as a muse for Tomas. He takes hundreds of photographs of her through their lives together, including many of his most striking works. Splitting their story into two pieces: Hannan details a motorcycle trip Tomas and Marie take to Vancouver, for a gallery showing of Tomas’s work; and the present day, where Marie has since died and Tomas, at 74, is a presence in the life of David, their son; Lorca, their daughter-in-law; and Charlie, their grandson. Lorca and David lead a much more conventional life than the romantic, art-driven days of Marie and Tomas, but their story, in many ways, reflects Marie and Tomas’s.
Hannan creates a beautiful, evocative story, following Tomas and Marie across the country. People tend to hold road trips as a kind of “test” of what another person is really like, and during the motorcycle trip, relatively early in their relationship, Marie and Tomas explore what it means to be together and what it means to know someone else. In the present day, Lorca and David do the same: how do you know someone, what is comfort in a relationship, and when do you stop trying? While the stories of the two couples diverge, they trod down the same paths of discovery. Rounding out the family is Charlie, a boy who routinely skips school to go observe people in the world, wondering about who they are, their relationships with one another, and how they got to that place in time.
I am the Earth the Plants Grow Through is an unconventional adventure: it can be meandering in places, contemplative in others, and rarely shows its hand. It’s a window into the lives of these three generations, and how each relationship in each generation shapes the children who come out of it. It explores the reasons we love each other and stay, and the reasons we drive each other apart. Hannan’s book is quietly triumphant: beautifully written and deeply thought-provoking.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Hannan has been a hotwalker, a typesetter for Fred Louder, a bookseller, and a publisher. He is a novelist and poet who lives in Montreal, Canada, not far from the house where he was born. His first book was published in 1977, and his first novel, The Poet is a Radio, was published in 2016. His work has been shortlisted for the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. His family knows he is either at home or will be back soon.
Publisher : Linda Leith Publishing (Sept. 13 2021)
My summertime exploration of BC’s southern archipelago was well underway. I’d explored a half dozen islands and already read a dozen books. There was sunshine and swimming, hiking, barbeques, and a whole lot of ice cream. In other words, good use of good weather.
When it was time to replenish my reading supply, I ambled into Qualicum’s Mulberry Bush Bookstore, one of the great indie booksellers on Vancouver Island. I tend to be a nonfiction guy, but Tom, the store’s owner, had other plans for me, and placed Valérie Perrin’s tome of a paperback, Fresh Water for Flowers in my hands with a touch of reverence.
“I have a customer who comes in regularly,” Tom said. “Very well read. And he relies on me for new recommendations. It’s flattering but I find it a bit stressful to consistently deliver. And he said with this one, I hit it out of the park. So I suggest it for you as well,” he said, with a warm and confident smile.
“Well, all right then,” was all I could say, taking care to lift with my legs as I lugged my new book to the till. And once again, Tom hit it out of the park.
This was the second translated book I’d read in as many weeks, and yet again, as I found myself enthralled by the text I not only applauded the author but the translator as well. Valérie Perrin’s Fresh Water for Flowers is a rejuvenating read, the prose rich, dreamy, sensuous and evocative. Through it all a sense of increasing strength, individuality and personal growth. It’s an empowering read, conducive to healing, communicated through relationships with those living and dead, revolving around the novel’s protagonist, Violette Toussaint.
“Violette Toussaint is the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne. Her life is lived to the predictable rhythms of the often funny, always moving confidences that casual mourners, regular visitors, and sundry colleagues share with her. Violette’s routine is disrupted one day by the arrival of Julien Sole—local police chief—who has come to scatter the ashes of his recently deceased mother on the gravesite of a complete stranger. It soon becomes clear that Julien’s inexplicable gesture is intertwined with Violette’s own complicated past.”
As I read I found myself thinking of people from my own past, alive and deceased, and felt as though we were presently in a shared space. A positive common domain. Perhaps the result of the prose, or poetic passages introducing vignettes, or merely the scope of the story, tickling corners of the subconscious, the deep dusty parts that only surface during periods of introspection, mourning, or revelation.
I could see this book being prescribed for those of us who’ve suffered or are suffering, or for those who know what they want, yet may not know how best to get there. This was one of those books I’d set down on my chest mid passage, simply savouring the art on the page. All I can do is echo my friend Tom’s words, and “suggest it for you as well.”
About the Author: Valérie Perrin was born in Remiremont, in the Vosges Mountains, France. She grew up in Burgundy and settled in Paris in 1986. Her novel The Forgotten Sunday (2015) won the Booksellers Choice Award and the paperback edition has been a bestseller since publication. Her English-language debut, Fresh Water for Flowers (Europa, 2020) won the Maison de la Presse Prize, the Paperback Readers Prize, and was named a 2020 ABA Indies Introduce and Indie Next List title. It has been translated into over thirty languages. Figaro Littéraire named Perrin one of the ten best-selling authors in France in 2019, and in Italy, Fresh Water for Flowers was the best-selling book of 2020. Perrin now lives in Normandy.
Constabulary officer Frank Fallon has just returned to his seaside home of Harbour Grace after 15 years with the Constabulary in St. John’s. Demoted from his position as Corporal because of behaviour unbecoming of an officer, the seasoned policeman finds himself on the beat in a town where he is forced to relive the painful memories of his past and the loss of his one and only love, beautiful Marie Callahan. Bitter recollections quickly turn to a quest for justice, when Marie turns up dead on Martin’s Beach. As Frank sets out to investigate the suspicious death of his former lover he is forced to revisit past relationships and confront personal demons that continue to plague him at every turn. The Body On The Beachis a well-crafted piece of detective fiction that offers both suspense and a sense of vicarious satisfaction. As Officer Frank Fallon embarks upon his criminal investigation, hidden secrets and collusion are revealed and the sad tale behind the body on the beach is one you just don’t see coming.
“My Lord. Oh my God. It’s Marie.”
Seeing the love of his life, the woman he once hoped to marry, a victim, sprawled lifeless and cold, was too much to bear. Too crushing. He wanted to hold her. Cradle her. Comfort her. Save her. But he knew it was futile. It was too late. Fifteen years too late. After all these years, discovering his very first love in such a horrifying context was beyond disturbing.
He was numb with shock, his face buried in his hands. But he had to come to his senses. He was a policeman. As Frank rose to his feet, he glanced around, hoping that he hadn’t been seen. Thankfully, it appeared he was still alone.
The Body On The Beach by Patrick J. Collins is Collins’ eleventh and most recent book. Written in memory of Alice Williams who tragically died in 1902, this mystery narrative is inspired by her suspicious death; a death whose cause has never been revealed. Set in the 1920s, the bustling town of Harbour Grace is under the rule of the Prohibition Act and the judicial brass are tasked with maintaining law and order. Officer Frank Fallon is a skilled officer but bitter about his demotion and seeks the comfort of forbidden spirits to help him get through his day. Readers will relate to Fallon’s flaws and will sympathize with his heartache but at the same time will be impressed with his investigative skills and dogged determination to find out what happened to his beloved Marie. Readers will also be intrigued by the beautiful Christine Sullivan, daughter of the Chief Inspector who demoted Fallon and will enjoy how the criminal investigation unfolds while a new story of love and romance develops. Collins cleverly crafts a completely new level of entertainment through the interplay of these two characters.
Collins has done an excellent job at creating a story that flows seamlessly. It is well-paced, making the story interesting and keeping readers hooked until the very end. The Body On The Beach by Patrick J. Collins is a wonderful read for any armchair detective who enjoys an escape from reality and an opportunity to step back in time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick J. Collins is a writer and retired educator who has taught in various communities throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. He finished his career in education as a curriculum program specialist, working in several school districts on the Avalon Peninsula and in Western Labrador. Patrick also worked as a sales and marketing representative with Lifetouch Canada until June 2011. He recently retired as a sessional instructor at the Canadian Training Institute in Bay Roberts. Pat’s eleventh and most recent work, The Body on the Beach, is a novel inspired by the true events surrounding a woman, Alice Williams, who died under mysterious and suspicious circumstances. The cause of her death has never been revealed. Born and raised in Riverhead, Harbour Grace, Patrick J. Collins continues to enjoy researching and writing in his retirement.
Fradkin is well known for her compelling mysteries. Fast-paced, lots of action and scenes which keep you guessing. The Devil to Pay is another novel in the Inspector Green series set in Ottawa, Canada. But Inspector Michael Green is not the main character. His daughter Hannah steals the show.
Hannah is a rookie cop, learning the ropes from a fellow police officer named Rick, who she has been assigned to. The story opens with them responding to the dispatcher’s request for a unit to check on a 10-55, code for “domestic disturbance.” Directed to listen and take notes, Hannah can’t help but wonder if there is more than meets the eye. After the interview with the husband and wife, Hannah’s partner doesn’t believe there are grounds for further investigation but Hannah reminds him:
“There’s the dog.” Rick snorted. “What about the dog?” “I have a dog. I mean there’s a dog at my parents’. She was a rescue who’d been traumatized. Dogs don’t hide their feelings. The dog wasn’t friendly, especially to the husband. It was tense and fearful. It was quiet in the wife’s arms but when the husband went to pet it, it snarled.”
Like her famous father, who is a legend in investigation, now delegated to paperwork, she has a keen impulse to dig deeper. Told to let it go, she ventures off on her own time to uncover what nags at her about the situation. A death in the family gets the authorities involved and Hannah is warned off again. This is when she starts to get in trouble.
Fradkin does a splendid job of creating suspense. She weaves characters in and out, including the small dog, and the story moves along at a good pace. Surprises along the way keep you involved. It’s tough to put down. There are teasers in the story that hint at Inspector Green’s past as a lead investigator and Hannah’s rough childhood. Fradkin sets it up so you will want to know more. I like Canadian mysteries and Fradkin is at the top of her craft. I enjoyed the novel and if you enjoy mysteries, I recommend it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barbara Fradkin is a retired psychologist who is fascinated with why people turn bad. She is the author of the Amanda Doucette series and the critically acclaimed Inspector Green novels. She lives in Ottawa.
Sgt. Nicholas Myra and Cpl. Gail McNaughton have teamed up in Helen C. Escott’s fourth crime thriller, Operation Trafficked. After the murder of a young sixteen-year-old girl in a downtown hotel, a special joint forces operation headed up by Myra and McNaughton seeks to investigate a sophisticated ring of international criminals specializing in human trafficking and the sale of women and children for sex. As they attempt to piece together the events that led to the gruesome and untimely death of the young polish girl, they discover that what was once considered the oldest profession in the world is very much alive and well in the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland and its surrounding areas. Suddenly a new realization emerges; these girls aren’t just sex workers; they are sex slaves, often held against their will for the pleasure of powerful men who occupy the upper echelons of society.
Dedicated to the thousands of women and children who are trafficked every day, Helen C. Escott crafts a story that is both shocking and gut-wrenching. Told in the third person point of view, the author does a superb job at providing insight into the backstory of each woman, drawing readers into the plight of each of the female characters and elevating them to real people deserving of our empathy and support. Whether it’s the young mother, herself abused as a child, and now sending naked photos of her 7-year-old daughter to her unknown boyfriend in a foreign country or a young Russian teen who has just discovered she has become pregnant by one of her johns, readers will be sickened but also saddened that such a market exists in our very own neighbourhoods.
Though the subject matter is heavy, there is relief! Throughout the narrative, Escott also weaves the continuing story of Sgt. Nicholas Myra, first introduced to readers in her first crime thriller Operation Wormwood and that of Cpl. Gail McNaughton, whose investigative skills are revealed in Operation Vanished. The duo and their team of crackerjack investigators are undaunted in their efforts to seek justice and in turn, are able to provide closure to the families whose loved ones have gone missing. Readers will have a hard time putting this book down.
Operation Trafficked by Helen C. Escott shines a very bright light on the heinous crimes that exist when a marginalized group is exploited for pleasure and gain. Kudos to this award-winning author for giving a voice to the voiceless!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helen C. Escott is an award-winning, bestselling Canadian author. Her crime thriller Operation Vanished was awarded a Silver Medal for Best Regional Fiction at the 24th annual Independent Publisher Book Awards. Operation Vanished is a mind-bending, sophisticated psychological crime thriller that will keep you guessing who the real killer is. In 2019 she was presented with the Governor General’s Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers.
Author Joanne Culley turns her grandparent’s history into a novel of historical fiction in Claudette on the Keys. However, “Claudette” is not only historical in its setting of Canada and Britain just prior to WWII, but it is also part musical history, as her grandparents both played piano in the “two pianos, four hands” style. They were on the radio in Canada, then, at the urging of a theatrical agent and bandleader, they left Canada behind and sailed across the ocean to make a name for themselves in England, whose populace was hungry for the type of music hall entertainment they provided.
Ida and Harry Fernley (Ida goes by the stage name of Claudette) are a talented pair who are the victims of the depression as their radio spot is cut by the sponsor due to financial restraints. They soon lose their Toronto home and have no recourse but to move in with Harry’s parents. This causes strained relationships all around and when Ida manages to get work, Harry gets upset as he can find nothing to earn a few dollars. Ida comes into contact with Jack Myles, a British musical agent and bandleader, he tells her to come to England where he can guarantee her work. Harry is reluctant but eventually goes along. Onboard, they volunteer their entertainment skills for passage. Along the way, the Fernleys meet many other entertainers, even a Hollywood movie star couple that is leaving the USA, Bebe Daniels and her husband, Ben Lyons.
In England, Fascists and Anti-Fascist groups are clashing and Ida finds herself torn between performing for Pro-fascist gatherings and her conscience. Besides, her good friend Jo Rosenberg that she met on the ship over to England is Jewish and Ida cannot believe the mounting hatred against them. There is so much more to Ida/Claudette’s adventures in England and the Continent (she and Harry are temporarily separated as each has chosen a different musical path). There are performances in Germany for the Nazi Party and even detainment due to Ida not having her own passport. (At the time, wives travelled under their husband’s passport). Some espionage and intervention by a British embassy official add to the suspense of being detained in Hitler’s pre-war Germany.
As a female protagonist, Ida/Claudette has been well fleshed out by Ms. Culley. Pregnant at 16, then married in a shotgun wedding to Harry, she does what she can to eke out a certain standard of living in the time of the Great Depression. Ida is industrious, and when it is apparent that Harry isn’t going to do much about their situation (on either side of the Atlantic), she must take the initiative and do what is in her best interest. She is both a woman of the times and very much ahead of her time.
Claudette on the Keys reminded me very much of another enjoyable historical fiction novel one based on the early life of Buster Keaton: Like Any Other Monday by Binnie Brennan (Gaspereau Press, 2014). There is plenty of musical and historical fact in both novels, and the fiction parts are well-written and unobtrusive, making them both informative and entertaining to read. If you are a fan of WWII-era popular music and Jazz, then Claudette on the Keys needs to be on your to-be-read list.
“Painting a vivid picture of what life was like for musicians in the Great Depression, it’s a book I couldn’t put down.”
Glen Woodcock, Host and Producer, JAZZ.FM91
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joanne Culley received her MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto and her Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Peterborough Examiner, Local Parent, Kawartha Cottage, Legion Magazine, Our Canada, on CBC, Bravo Network, Rogers Television, TVOntario, and in several anthologies. Her books are Claudette on the Keys and Love in the Air: Second World War Letters. She received the “In Celebration of Women” media award for her documentary “Be My Baby.” She grew up in Toronto and now lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
For fans of historical fiction and/or Canadian history, Trappings is a book based on real people and events in mid-nineteenth-century British Columbia. What’s more, it offers a woman’s view of politics and life during this time.
Winn’s passion for her subject shows in the historical details. Trappings tells a personal story of a woman and her family against the laws, customs, and events of the time; the smallpox epidemic of 1862, the gold rush of 1858, the San Francisco earthquake of 1868, Queen Victoria’s birthday celebrations (including a blindfolded wheelbarrow race and a greased-pole event), the birth of the Dominion of Canada, and the recent history of several First Nations communities (from which Kate’s own family was partly descended). You will also learn interesting tidbits about Point Ellice House, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Vancouver Coal Mining Company, Emily Carr, and Sir Joseph Bazalgette – creator of London’s sewer system in the time of the “the Great Stink” and the cousin of Captain George Bazalgette who was a good friend of Kate (Work) Wallace and Charles Wallace. Some people really got around back then. You might be surprised by the connections you discover.
Amid the recovery from recession, an underlying note of alarm sounded through the murky city in late September. Another wave of disease was suddenly carrying off the Indians. Mr. Sebright Green was calling for their protection, and Kate appreciated him a little more. The general dread of small pox was countered by the opinions of some medical gentlemen that it was a different malady altogether. Regardless, the physicians in town were kept busy vaccinating the citizens.
You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy this book – not if you enjoy stories about women; women helping other women, women helping themselves in a world full of men’s laws.
Kate Work is one of the daughters of John Work, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Fur Trading Company. “A fur trader might provide his daughter with the trappings of success, but even a Chief Factor could not free her from wedlock, once caught in the matrimonial snare.” Although several of Kate’s sisters, ahead of her, had secured successful (and even happy) marriages, Kate herself hadn’t been so fortunate. She was happy at first, but it wasn’t long before she began to doubt her husband’s devotion, as well as his business savvy and ability to take care of Kate’s inheritance from her father; something that meant a great deal to her: “She shook her head in small, jerky movements, with the awful realization that, indeed, the house was never really hers...” In addition, Kate and Charles had lost three of their four children.
Kate’s husband, Charles Wentworth Wallace, was born into a prominent family from Halifax, Nova Scotia. They moved West after a scandal involving his father, in the hopes of starting over; Kate only just learned about this during the public debacle of their own financial troubles.
Having believed Confederation might strengthen Charles’ ties to Nova Scotia, she was puzzled by his position against it. He was churlish in his response to her careful questions. If he regretted his inability to run himself, he did not admit it to her. Politics were simply not the dominion of a lady.
“You had better keep your attention, Kate, where it is needed, to your family here. There is plenty to attend to under your own roof.”
She bit her tongue, as to the roof, which was decidedly not her own. Nor his, she might have added.
Kate was trapped. With her failing health, she had to think of her remaining daughter, Eliza, who legally belonged to Charles. How to ensure a future for Eliza that included all the love and warmth Kate experienced as a child?
Trappings is the kind of book that pulls you in slowly but surely. If the historical customs and events don’t suck you in, the warmth of Kate’s large family is sure to. And if you’re like me, you’ll be googling them all to find out what became of their descendants. We need more stories like this; ones that give life to little-known, overlooked women of the past.
You can order Trappings online here, or ask for it at your local bookstore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vanessa Winn’s debut novel, The Chief Factor’s Daughter, was longlisted for the ReLit Awards and runner up for Monday Magazine‘s “Favourite Fiction” award in 2010. As a manuscript, it won a Heritage Group prize for new voices in Western Canadian history and culture. The book has been studied in BC universities and colleges. Vanessa’s non-fiction and poetry have appeared in several magazines and journals. In 2020, she released another historical novel, Trappings. A story of first love, second chances, and family secrets, it’s set in Victoria during the collapse of the Cariboo gold rush. This novel was a course textbook for a Public History graduate seminar at the University of Victoria and features Point Ellice House, a National and Provincial Historic Site.
She has a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English from the University of Victoria and edits and proofreads for other writers. Beyond her love of the written word and historical research, she finds inspiration in music and dance and teaches Argentine tango. Born in England, Vanessa has lived in Victoria, BC, for much of her life.
Tristan Marajh is the 1st-Prize Winner in The Stratford Writing Competition and a Winner in The Scugog Arts Council’s Ekphrastic Writing Competition. His fiction and poetry appear in The New Quarterly, Existere: A Journal of Art & Literature, The Ekphrastic Review, Blank Spaces Magazine, Dreamers Creative Writing Magazine and others. He resides in Toronto. He has kindly allowed The Miramichi Reader to reprint “The Lesser Man” here.
If you were to ask Kwame Abara how his commute to work went, “Wind” is what he would tell you. You might, for a moment, think his answer strange – and think him strange for saying that – but then you’d think a bit more. “Yes,” you’d reply, “it was indeed a windy morning.”
Kwame would smile at this – more so to himself – and you’d assume that he was agreeing with you: yes, it was a windy morning.
Kwame, however, is not only agreeing with you, but disagreeing as well. That disagreement is why he’s smiling to himself.
You likely didn’t experience the wind that morning like he did. You didn’t feel the breeze washing upon your face like cool water after a spell of dryness, getting in your hair, presenting itself in abundance to your nostrils, refreshing you for another new day. This is what Kwame’s commute to work is, on his bicycle, cycling on Highway 48 with cars rushing past. You might have been driving, or in, one of those cars, only knowing it was windy because the weather report on the radio said so. You might even have felt the same wind Kwame did when your car’s air conditioning system recirculated it. But you didn’t feel it like Kwame did and that’s why he smiled that way.
If you didn’t see Kwame cycling on your way, that’s likely because he hit the roads before you did. If you’re a colleague, you likely don’t know all that he got up to once he got to your workplace early in the morning. Do you sense something mysterious? Let’s go back to Kwame on his bike; or rather, when he stopped and parked it in the parking lot of Stouffville Public Library, where you are both employed, walked toward the nearest tree and embraced it.
If you had made it early and were in your car in the parking lot – perhaps eating breakfast or listening to the radio – and you’d witnessed Kwame embracing the tree, you might consider him insane. But he is considering something else: that the first time he’d embraced a tree, he was a lesser man. He was jobless: he had been let go from his former job. He was homeless: he could no longer afford rent and spent his nights at a shelter. He was aimless: he walked upon arising from the shelter and then walked some more, without any destination. He was faithless: he no longer believed in the job he was fired from, even though he had spent years of his energy and efforts believing otherwise. The institution he worked for, a law firm, was a large part of who he saw himself to be, and he regarded himself as an integral part of it. The firm, however, had seen money as an integral part of who they were, and Kwame wasn’t cutting it, and so they cut him.
If you noticed Kwame walking the streets back then, you would simply see him as a man walking about, looking lost and forlorn, taking in his surroundings. Salvation wasn’t in his former job, but in looking at birds that hopped upon the grass, in looking at squirrels that hustled upon the ground and on trees, in looking at the large geese that ambled about, chicks in tow; even in looking at the earthworms that wriggled on the pavements. Kwame found a sound measure of peace and on one of these aimless walks, he felt exceedingly grateful and walked over to the nearest tree, deeply moved, and embraced it. Life resonated, pure and essential, and every day since, Kwame Abara has never failed to daily embrace a tree. All throughout his daily walks, his time spent volunteering, his return to and progression through school and his return to employment, trees – lush and leafless, thin and thick – have been warmly embraced by Kwame. He was, he wrote in a journal, a lesser man now, stripped of unimportant extraneous frills, concerned now only with living and giving, as trees live and give. Now Branch Librarian at Stouffville Public Library, Kwame found a way to make his concern a calling. You recall, indeed, that a library patron once referred to him as the Olive-Branch librarian.
Let’s go back to Kwame at the library. As he enters it, all lights are off and all blinds are drawn over all the large windows. No one is present; stillness pervades the building and Kwame settles in the central seating area to prepare himself for the day. If another colleague were to mention they did “morning preparations”, you may say: ah yes, morning preparations – paperwork, responding to correspondence and organizing one’s desk. Kwame, however, views it as preparing himself, organizing his mind and not, so much, his desk. Pulling out his journal, he looks at the notes he wrote to himself during his period of Earth-connection, that time of revelation that caused him to describe himself, in his journal, as a lesser man. He starts to read. You, one of his colleagues, would not be aware of your Branch Librarian’s morning routine. If you were, you’d consider Kwame a self-indulgent person, either too full of himself or with too much time on his hands – or both. Kwame, though, is considering the idea that as much as he is doing this for himself, he is also doing for you, his colleagues and all library users.
As if on cue upon the thought, the library’s entrance opens and one of your colleagues comes in. She is the first of many to come with the same disposition: the harried entrance, bewildered smile and the too-quick “Good Morning” before entering the staff room to set down her things and gather her paging radio and name pin. In her wake is the preparation of family breakfast, packing of lunches for kids, rousing those very kids then driving them to school, all before rejoining traffic to get to work before 9:00 AM. More colleagues trickle in and after a brief morning meeting, Stouffville Public Library opens its doors to the public.
Hustle and harry continue; not customers’ nicknames but customers’ states. Harried parents with boisterous children, furrowed-browed students with looming deadline dates. Parents are relieved by the library’s Storytime sessions and activities, while students believe their relief will come in the careers that await them at the end of their studies. Kwame, watching the students scuttle for available tables and study spaces, recognizes himself – his past self – in them. More patrons, newcomers to the country, use the computers for job hunting, each posting seemingly promising a new life different from the ones they left in their previous lands. If they perused the shelves beyond the screens, though, these patrons would see that the worlds they left behind are closer than they thought: in books about war, the tumultuous creation of nations, the proliferation of different ideologies and the ever-occurring messes, mayhem and murder that result. They will find books on the steady, simultaneous industrialization and destruction of the planet, the dislike people have for one another, the luxuriance of material possessions in one part of the world and the lack of them in another. Or, for quick summaries, they just have to view the news playing on the library’s television screen in the lobby or read the headlines from the various newspapers that the library subscribes to for customers to use. The latter requires a wait, however: people, seniors specifically, sit with the newspapers for hours, poring over the reports. Kwame isn’t as advanced in age as they, but he is mature enough to know that people, especially at older ages, shouldn’t concern themselves with the drama of the world anymore. It is a world in pieces; let there be interest, instead, in a world in peace.
Kwame will on occasion say that out loud, and this morning you are next to him at the library’s front desk.
“Why get caught up in the world?” he says, out of nowhere.
As you check in items, you wait for him to go on, but he says nothing more. He walks away. As if by magical, conspiratorial coincidence, one of the books you are checking in is titled “Mindful Methods for Making the Planet a Better Place.” There is a Staff Picks sticker signed by Kwame on the front cover. As you wheel the completed checked-in items on a book cart to be shelved, you ponder: is Kwame making the Planet a Better World? You open the book to a random page and read a random sentence: “to contribute to the world, it is necessary to view it from a state of detachment.” You smile wryly. If anyone is detached from the world, it’s the tree hugger.
There are a couple events taking place in the library today. In the meeting room, a speaker is giving a lecture to a rapt, attentive audience. His appearance, indeed, invites attention: he is dressed in swaddling clothes, he has a long, flowing gray beard and the smoothest skin of dark brown you have ever seen. His English is accented and expertly rendered. He speaks authoritatively and laughs as he makes sardonic remarks. You pause at the door to listen in:
“Exuberance of life can only be possible if you have absolute stability.”
“Do not try to fix whatever comes in your life; instead, fix yourself in such a way that whatever comes, you will be fine.”
The audience takes in the speaker’s words with an intensity you haven’t seen since university, when exams were nearing and students were fearing. In another way, people here are still being tested, and people are still desperate to pass.
“If you were to ask a tree how she feels to know that she’s sharing her fragrance and making people alive and happy, she doesn’t look at it that way. It is simply her nature to be that way.”
There’s a lot of love for trees today, you think to yourself, smiling a smile that, even though you don’t see it, feels like the smile Kwame would make. You realize that Kwame must have arranged for this bearded wise man to speak at the library. You search for him to commend him, and as you do you understand that the question you earlier posed to yourself – has Kwame contributed to the world? – has just been answered. Where, though, is the Librarian?
You don’t look in the library’s lobby, and that’s where he is. He has been conversing with a patron who was earlier poring over a textbook inside. Kwame has discovered the student majors in Political Science at university. It wasn’t even hard to guess: the student has furrowed brows as he speaks with conviction and blind idealism, dissatisfaction and outrage. Kwame is reminded of himself, again. The Breaking News on the television above the lobby doorway distracts both parties from their conversation. Breaking News from a broken land: two boys, playing on a beach, killed by crossfire in the Middle East.
“There shouldn’t be children playing on a beach when there’s a war going on,” says the student.
“There shouldn’t be a war going on when there’s children playing on a beach,” Kwame responds.
The student is silent, looking at Kwame as if the librarian has uttered something ridiculous. He smiles tightly and goes back to his textbooks. Such blind acceptance of the policies of the world and the complications of human conflict. Kwame recalls a statement by Nietzsche: “Time is a flat circle.” It was one of the few insights from university that has stuck with Kwame; he hopes the student will stick with less. As a librarian, Kwame is aware he’s perpetuating policies gained in university, but short of checking out from society and checking into the wild, one would be hard-pressed to evade said society. What one must do, then, is usher in compassion and empathy where one can; it need not be as palpable as via the government of a nation, but instead in the moments of one’s life, through what one does. Kwame has prioritized bringing in speakers such as the gray-bearded man to speak at the library, he has reserved a space for daily meditation for patrons, he has scheduled regular conversation circles for newcomers and the lonely, he has hosted documentary screenings in the meeting room, and he has included carefully curated media into his library’s collection. He has also emphasized the best that the library has to offer: research databases for a wide variety of areas, language-learning software for easy instruction and smartphone apps for those preferring mobile endorsement.
Despite these, Kwame’s best contribution, were you to ask him, is his conversation and exchanges with fellow colleagues and patrons. He has, over time at Stouffville, learned the geography of their lives: what they and their children, family and friends like to read, what they do, where they have been or plan to travel to, their careers, academic paths, daily concerns, routines, routes, revelries. He knows of deep struggle revealed only through brief mention in a single sentence. It is enough; he does not need to know an excessive amount, just enough so that he might touch upon a person’s life without burdening them with interfacing. For everyone so far, it is indeed enough, because in that encounter they perceive empathy that is seldom found among those even more closely knotted up in their lives. As such a patron had said: the Olive-Branch Librarian.
If you consider checking items in and out to be mundane, you’d find other tasks in the library’s operations even more so. But, in the same mindful way that he inhabits his interactions with the patrons as they check their items in or out, Kwame inhabits moving from one end of his workspace to another in order to get a rubber band, or to write down a number for a cart to be shelved, or to find a colleague without choosing to radio him or her. Purpose, Kwame finds, is in these otherwise-considered trivial pursuits because they are purposes in themselves, as well as part of the larger purpose of library operation. Kwame, within these moments, affirms inner equilibrium; or equilibrarian as he likes to call it.
At the end of the workday, library staff exit with the same bustle as they did when they entered that morning. Kids wait at home for dinner, there is traffic to avoid, errands to tend to. Only Kwame remains, and another workday begins for custodial staff when they come in.
Kwame engages in conversation with the small family of three: a man, woman and their son. Their English is not fluent, which might have made for an awkward interaction, but Kwame finds them a pleasure to relate to regardless: they’re courteous, humble and the greetings they offer and whatever they say are felt by Kwame as genuine. Language, to Kwame, is a luxury if you fluently speak one; those who don’t suffer when faced with an unfamiliar tongue. As the child of Yoruba-speaking parents, he would know.
Custodians are hardly given proper appreciation, at least not in the places Kwame has worked or previously stepped in. Behind closed doors at the end of a business day, custodians all over the world ensure pleasant operation of spaces and thoroughfares by seeing to the pristine state of these spaces, helping folks to focus in a valuable way. Who hasn’t made a major decision while in a washroom stall? From those decisions, whole lifestyles have been started. Some folk go into the stalls to shed tears, or to recompose themselves, or to catch their breath during stressful times. Many go to simply be alone with their thoughts. Upon exiting the stall, they will face the mirror and affirm their validity as a person in the world. “You are powerful,” they might whisper, sizing themselves up as they look upon their reflection, acquiring a countenance of courage. It is sometimes all they need to return to the situation they had to take a breather from – the difficulty of work, a conflict in relationship, a private pain – a situation trying enough for them to exit the world for a few moments. How much greater would their discouragement be if the mirrors in their space of refuge were stained or hard to see clearly on? How dismayed would they be at unclean stalls, that they cannot even have the small mercy of a private moment in a private space? How many more decisions would be delayed – and therefore lives held back – if those bathroom stalls caused aversion and dismay? Custodians not only make spaces clean, they help make slates clean.
The library, also, is like a clean slate at the end of the workday, after staff have left and the custodians are gone. Kwame gathers wayward items on his desk, arranges them neatly and goes to the central lounge. He sits and closes his eyes, inhales then exhales at length. Reopening his eyes, he looks around him, watching the books on the shelves, the ceilings high overhead, the signage displays, the pathways of the different aisles. He sees a spider slowly descend from a light, tiny dust particles are floating in the air. It is as if everything is now brimming with a pristine light, having emerged from under a haze that rendered everything only partially perceptible and indeed, only partially existing. It is almost too much for Kwame to bear. His mind quiets in an instant; his body as a whole, it seems, breathes deeply. There is a sensation that he is lessening as a physical body and merging with the air, merging with this institution he works for and with the very wind he feels when he leaves for the night. He is the lesser man, now part of a Whole.
Inspired by true events, Claudette on the Keys (Crossfield Publishing) is a novel that tells the story of Ida Fernley, whose stage name is Claudette, and her husband Harry, a Toronto-based duo-piano team called the Black and White Spotters. At the height of the Great Depression, the pair are hanging onto their livelihoods by their fingernails. It is the winter of 1936, with the unemployment rate at 17 percent, when they find out that they are being laid off from their live weekly radio program on CKCL due to a pullout by the sponsor, Shirriff’s Marmalade. After their home is repossessed, they and their two young sons move into Harry’s parent’s home where they try to figure out their next steps. When Ida plays free of charge for a charity concert at Shea’s Hippodrome, she happens to meet a British talent agent who is impressed by her virtuosic rendition of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” He invites her and Harry to come to London to work, where Ida experiences firsthand the rise of fascism and becomes embroiled in pre-war intrigue. Whenever she finds herself in a tough spot, she draws inspiration from her movie-star hero Claudette Colbert. A gripping read for fans of Letters across the Sea by Genevieve Graham and The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff.
Joanne Culley received her MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto and her Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Peterborough Examiner, Local Parent, Kawartha Cottage, Legion Magazine, Our Canada, on CBC, Bravo Network, Rogers Television, TVOntario, and in several anthologies. Her books are Claudette on the Keys and Love in the Air: Second World War Letters. She received the “In Celebration of Women” media award for her documentary “Be My Baby.” She grew up in Toronto and now lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing most of my career, writing scripts for documentaries and writing articles for newspapers and magazines. In 2015 I discovered over 600 letters my parents wrote during the Second World War – my father was a musician in the RCAF and my mother worked at the TTC in a job that would normally have been done by a man. I wrote my first book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters, combining excerpts from their letters, imagined scenes and historical background. It was well received and got a lot of media attention, as it was released on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. After that, I decided to go back another generation to write about my grandparents, who were a duo piano team, also drawing on what they left behind – show programs, sheet music, photos, newspaper clippings, to create a fictionalized account of their lives.
After my father’s death, while clearing out a closet, I found an old Eaton’s box with over 600 airmail letters that my parents wrote to each other during the Second World War. My father, Harry Culley Jr. played clarinet in the RCAF No. 3 concert band, as well as playing saxophone in the smaller 12-piece dance band. They played dances for the Army and Air Force officers, for troops on the bases, at the legions, at special events and as a backup for travelling entertainers. They accompanied popular songwriter and musician Irving Berlin when he came to the Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth, England in 1944. My mother worked at jobs that would have previously been done by men, at the Department of Munitions and Supply in Ottawa and at the Toronto Transportation Commission as it was then known. In the book, I have blended excerpts from the letters with a narrative inspired by the correspondence and historical background to bring to life a unique story of enduring love amidst global turmoil, providing a glimpse into what was going on on both sides of the Atlantic. It came out on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war to much media attention.
What inspired you to write Claudette on the Keys?
Claudette on the Keys is inspired by the real lives of my grandparents who were a popular piano duo from the 1930s to the 1950s. They played on two pianos with four hands, and had shows on many Toronto radio stations such as CKCL and CFRB as well as playing live at theatres such as Shea’s Hippodrome. They were described at the time as “Toronto’s Premier Two-Piano Artists.” When they lost their radio work and their home in Toronto during the Depression, they travelled to London at the invitation of an agent and orchestra leader who arranged work for them on Radio Luxembourg and in touring to music hall theatres in the British Isles. I’ve taken the germ of their story to create a fictionalized account of their time overseas.
In the novel, Ida has problems travelling with her marital passport – she doesn’t have her own, but rather is listed on her husband’s passport. What aspects of independence do women have now that perhaps we take for granted?
During the pandemic, while sorting through a box of my grandparents’ possessions, I came across their passport from 1936. Yes, their passport, not passports, as at that time, married women were listed on their husband’s passport – they didn’t have their own document. Inside, their photos were placed side by side, and on the opposing page, my grandfather’s information took up two-thirds of the page and he was listed as “musician,” while my grandmother’s details took up just a third of the page, and didn’t list her profession, even though she was as famous or even more famous than my grandfather.
We take individual passports for granted now, being issued them in our own names as women, but there was a time when women didn’t have their own. Even though women could vote in Canada in 1918 and officially became persons in 1929, the concept of their being independent entities while travelling took a lot longer.
Sometimes married women were not able to travel on their own even though their husbands could do so freely. In the book, Ida/Claudette encounters numerous difficulties as a woman travelling on her own with a marital passport in pre-war continental Europe and meets face to face with Nazi officials who detain her on suspicion of espionage. She attracts attention by the mere fact of travelling without her husband.
In 1947 in Canada, married women were finally allowed to have their own passports, when the Canadian Citizenship Act came into effect.
The book takes place in 1936 and 1937 when fascism is rising not only in Germany but in England. How does Ida become aware of this?
When Ida is asked to play at a fancy men’s club in London, she meets Sir Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and hears about his close ties with Hitler in Germany. She becomes aware of the Cable Street uprising in London, where Mosely organized an anti-Jewish, anti-Irish march through that impoverished East End neighbourhood. Once she arrives in Berlin, she sees the blatant signs of anti-Semitism through the shuttering of Jewish businesses, the imprisonment of Jews and the detention of political prisoners at Sachsenhausen, the prototype concentration camp that was used as a model for the other concentration camps during the Second World War.
What was vaudeville or music hall?
Vaudeville shows were popular in the early 1900s. They were live performances in theatres where a variety of performers appeared one after another, often with only the master of ceremonies to tie them together – quite a hodgepodge of acts, including jugglers, comedians, magicians, clairvoyants. The Ed Sullivan show on TV in the 1960s and 1970s was a modern version of this vaudeville form.
Harry and Ida were a novelty act, on two-pianos, four-hands, playing music specially composed for that genre, by contemporary composers such as American pianist and singer Olive Dungan created songs especially for this genre, including “White Jasmine” and “Enchantment.” Another American pianist, Morton Gould, created two-piano arrangements of well-known songs, including “Bolero Moderne” and “Rumbolero.” The piano duo appeared on the same stage as comedian Red Skelton and singer Kate Smith.
In the book, Ida/Claudette struggles to make her way in a largely male-dominated society. Discuss how the lives of women were different in the 1930s.
In the 1930s music was a field dominated by men, and women, if they were performers or composers, were underappreciated and lesser-known, or their sex appeal was highlighted instead of their talent. In the book, when Ida tries to negotiate business dealings with her and her husband’s musical career, often the person will ask to speak to her husband. Throughout the story, we see her becoming more confident in her own abilities and in how she continues to wend her way through the new world she finds herself in without losing her sense of self.
Describe the two pianos-four hands genre.
In the 1930s and 40s, there was music specially composed and arranged for playing on two pianos, with two pianists. Sometimes they’d play the same notes, other times, they had completely different parts, but the important thing was to present a unified front, starting and ending at the same time. We may remember the popular musical that came to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre a while back, called “2 Pianos 4 Hands,” by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt which was a funny and comprehensive look at this art form. In fact, Harry was the musical director at the Royal Alexandra during the 1940s and 1950s. I think he would have approved of that musical.
How you did settle on the title?
Claudette is the stage name that Ida takes to add mystery and allure to their act. Ida’s heroine is Claudette Colbert, who was one of the most well-known and best-paid actors at that time, asserting herself in productions, insisting that she only be filmed from her left side. In the book, whenever Ida finds herself in a tight spot, she draws on the strength and assertiveness of Claudette Colbert to get her through the difficulty.
In the book and in real life, one of Ida’s favourite tunes is “Kitten on the Keys,” a short, snappy song by Zez Comfrey that was popular at that time and that becomes her signature piece. It uses a lot of the black notes, and many of the riffs are meant to emulate a kitten walking over the piano keys. A technically difficult piece, Ida gives it a lot of flourishes, including palm plants and glissandos up and down the keys to show off her talent.