CBC Books is counting down the top 10 bestselling Canadian titles of 2020, using data from close to 300 independent Canadian bookstores, courtesy of Bookmanager. Interestingly, the #9 and #8 books were reviewed right here at TMR, both by Ian Colford:
Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis, a character perhaps as folkloric as her paintings, comes to life in Carol Bruneau’s reimagining of her in Brighten the Corner Where You Are.
Lewis has been depicted in books, films and plays. Certain facts are known–her struggle with disabilities including crippling rheumatoid arthritis, her marriage to the meanspirited, miserly alcoholic Everett Lewis, the gaily decorated one-room house where they lived in abject poverty, and the colourful scenes she painted of bucolic country life and sold for a few dollars each. She left no journals and aside from recollections from acquaintances and some interviews, her story is incomplete. We are left, as Maud says, with either “…pictures we paint of ourselves or pitchers of us that others pour out.”
Backed by research, Bruneau pours fiction and a keen instinct for the complications of a human life from her pitcher. The story begins with Lewis reflecting from the afterworld after her death in 1970. The reader is skillfully led through memories that jump through time with ease, the way a mind naturally works as one thought begets another.
In Brighten the Corner, Maud gains a fulsomeness. She is not simply a vision of misery and a subject of pity nor a model of indefatigable spirit and artistic joy, but a cauldron of divergent emotions and thoughts starting with her husband. She is grateful to be married and for the little he provides because how else would she survive: “Marriage being a dinghy you don’t want to stand up too straight in, lest it capsizes.” Her concern for him is a mixture of acceptance that she needs him and a kind of fondness. She gets frustrated and angry, then defends him, partly because she recognizes he too is a victim of life’s misfortune.
Bruneau’s use of the first-person narrative adeptly creates Maud’s world. The reader perches on her shoulder, like her crow Matilda might have, to feel the cruel bite of teasing: “Lift your chin off your nick! Cripple!” We see Everett’s parsimony in a tea bag drying on a line above the stove, dangling “like a mermaid’s purse pegged between two of his socks.” We feel the shame as she and her husband skulk through a junkyard for her own wedding present and at the piss pot’s odour when a visitor enters. And we celebrate with her that her art made “grown adults get over themselves and their troubles, even if just for a moment, and smile, just smile.”
Bruneau’s Lewis embodies contradictions inherent in all of us. She can be canny or trusting, suspicious or accepting, resentful or grateful. Though she says, “Joy is a slippery thing,” overall, she is optimistic. Knowing people looked at her house as if it was a cage, she says, “Well, if it was a cage, I tried to make it like one you would put a beautiful pet bird in.”
In the book, Lewis says, “So long as I could paint, I got through what the world dished out.”
We admire her spirit and hope that this is true. This is a fine book bringing credible depth to an artist who, for all that she contributed to Nova Scotia lore, is largely unknown.
About the Author: Carol Bruneau is the author of three short story collections and four novels. Her first novel, Purple for Sky, won the 2001 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award. Her 2007 novel, Glass Voices, was a Globe and Mail Best Book. Her reviews, stories, and essays have appeared nationwide in newspapers, journals, and anthologies, and two of her novels have been published internationally.
Brighten the Corner Where You Are: A Novel Inspired by the Life of Maud Lewis
Paperback : 360 pages
ISBN-10 : 1771088834
ISBN-13 : 978-1771088831
Publisher : Vagrant Press (Sept. 9 2020)
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