I've been wanting to read this book since it came out, so when I joined the CanLit challenge this year it was good motivation to finally start reading...moreI've been wanting to read this book since it came out, so when I joined the CanLit challenge this year it was good motivation to finally start reading. This is one of those times where I'm going to fall back on the publisher's blurb, because I've tried to summarise the book myself and failed miserably. This works much better:
In the year before the 1995 Referendum in Quebec, Eve wants nothing more than to move out of the bedroom community of Dorval and into the real city, Montreal, where she hopes to meet a girl who'll want to kiss her back. She finds Della, moves out from under her parents' roof and into a world of Indie rock, tattoos, piercings, roommates, and feminist politics. Over the course of the following two years, she discovers that real life can't be lived following the expectations placed on her by her lover or her friends.
If I had read this book never having lived in Canada or known much about its recent history, I would probably have had a hard time following the political side of the story. Not a lot of context is provided, so I'll quickly explain: in 1995 there was a second referendum on the question of whether Quebec should separate from Canada (I actually thought this was the first one, until I looked it up just now - the first one was in 1980). The "No" side narrowly won, and the debate has been more or less shelved since then. It was without a doubt a heady time in Quebec, and perhaps in the country in general, and the atmosphere comes across strongly in Bottle Rocket Hearts. Whittall succeeded enormously in capturing that uni-student life (one which, in a way, felt familiar), that life of young sexually adventurous rebels against the state. It has a 1980s Thatcher's-Britain flavour to it, of punk music and youth rebelling against conservatism.
The story is narrated by Eve, who is young - younger than she says she is - earnestly gay and somewhat easily influenced by older, more experienced gay friends, including her girlfriend Della and her flatmates Rachel and Seven. The story is one of growth - in Eve, and perhaps at a slower rate in the province itself. She narrates in present tense and moves fluidly back and forth in time, to the extent that my mental chronology of the story got all messed up. I wonder if writing it more chronologically would have been just as effective, and saved me from a headache in trying to guess where I was in Eve's story. Some scenes were in past tense but it was never a consistent pattern. A minor quibble, perhaps, but it did make me slow in reading what is a short novel.
But I did like Eve's voice, which rings strong and true. Her concise use of words, the pretty metaphor inserted here and there that shows how clearly Eve sees beauty in the gritty, makeshift world she lives in, creates a rich setting.
Della was raised in a small town near Quebec City by a French father and an English mother*. Her mother insisted on putting her on a two hour bus ride every day to get to an English school so she'd have a "hope in hell" of getting out of said town. She showed me photos of her and her brother holding hands on a country dirt road smiling on their first day of school. They are little dots in a field with no signs of other human life, no houses, just trees and hay.
Her father disagreed but was never one to fight. Only after her mother's death did her father take up separatism like a religious zealot. Della went along for the ride, despite her eventual Concordia arts degree, her fluency in English, her place in both communities. Della never seems to say much about her mother at all. I didn't press. Della had stories she was comfortable telling, and I'd hear them told again and again at parties, and I'd feel slightly smug that I already knew the endings, the punch lines. She told them with a similar inflection each time. She spun a beautiful sparkling string of yarn. (pp. 55-6)
* by "English mother" she means English-speaking Canadian.
There's something decidedly young and naive about Eve, and yet worn and tired at the same time - she puts so much energy into everything, and watches others so closely, and wants to belong to the gay and lesbian community so much. Earnest, she comes across as at times. Other times, I felt protective of her, of the way she was being played around with by Della, of her vulnerability.
I, on the other hand, haven't had the requisite rebound love affair. It's been three months of solo sleeps and erotic malaise. Jenny is busy with her boyfriend. Della's friends weren't my friends. Rachel is married to her books and thesis. Melanie takes me out for drinks sometimes. And there are the girls from the women's centre I go to actions with. But I guess if I'm going to concentrate on friends I should try to make some more or connect more intensely with the ones I have. I feel lonely for the first time in my life. (p. 102)
Of the other characters, Seven was the most charismatic and the most honest in his dealings with Eve - by which I mean he was a genuine friend. There's a tapestry of other characters who flit in and out of Eve's life in Montreal, and the occasional appearance of a dowdy parent figure. There's tragedy and comedy in equal portions, and watching Eve come into her own strength at the end created a satisfying climax. Even the messy narrative - the jumping around in time and place and even tense - only adds to the sense of Eve's messy life.
If I were Canadian, I could probably make some remark about the novel being intrinsic to Canadian sense of identity, or the LGBT community, or hazard that Eve is a metaphor for the maturation of the province - but I have no idea, it's only a glimmer in my immigrant perception that this may be the case, so I've confined my thoughts to the story itself as much as possible.
I learnt from Whittall's blog that the book is being adapted to the screen - or, rather, she is working on the screenplay. It will work perfectly in that format, as a grungy arthouse film, and I hope it appears at TIFF in a couple of years. (less)
This is a long review. Just warning you. I'm too bewildered and pressed for time to write anything more tight and articulate.
I wanted to read somethin...moreThis is a long review. Just warning you. I'm too bewildered and pressed for time to write anything more tight and articulate.
I wanted to read something from the Orange Prize shortlist and this title really interested me. It wasn't what I expected, which honestly wouldn't matter except that, unfortunately, the story I did get disappointed me so much.
This is the kind of book I dread, because it leaves me confused on so many levels - not least of which is a lack of a definitive reaction from me. I liked it, but I didn't like it. I was impressed by it, and infuriated. I thought it was clever, fresh and original ... and wanky, lecturing and unrealistic. So many contradictions! Does that make any review I attempt null? I feel like this book let me down, and I let the book down.
The story is ostensibly about the aftermath of a sex scandal at an all-girls' school, between a seventeen year old student, Victoria, and the jazz band teacher, Mr Saladin. In actual fact, this scandal - and the truth of it - is merely the match to a bonfire of themes exploring girls' repressed sexuality, the drive by mothers to keep their daughters innocent to their own detriment, and lesbian love (I am hesitantly, uncertainly, putting this novel in the LGBT sub-category).
The Rehearsal alternates its chapters between the present, told in present-tense, mostly in chronological order (but not always), and segmented by days; and a sort-of parallel story that begins perhaps a year back, is told in past tense, and fluctuates randomly between the months in non-chronological order until the two stories eventually meet up at the end, get all tangled together and fall to the floor in a worse muddle than they started. I spent the entire novel feeling half-confused, putting my trust in Catton and hoping - yes, expecting - that the last puzzle piece of the ending would make everything come clear. It did not. In fact, the ending made it worse and left me disgruntled. Really quite pissed off, to be honest. My trust was not rewarded.
Here's the thing: it is unclear, especially in the present-tense story, just what is real and what is not. Just when I think I've got it figured out it turns on me with a "ha ha! Got you!" snigger. I love puzzles, but like with any good mystery, there should be a few subtle, clever clues tucked away for the smart reader to find and use to unlock the HOW - how do I read this book?
I am clearly not smart enough for this book, because I'm probably the only person who was thoroughly confused by it. I just don't think Catton was trying to create this kind of reading experience. If she were, then that would be one thing. You see what I mean about being deeply conflicted? While I was reading the novel, there were times when I was deeply impressed, and completely submerged in the philosophy of it all, the poetic language and the mystery, the beautiful, light touch of the mystery. But because the ending punched me in the head, spun me round till I was dizzy, and then left me in a heap, struggling to disentangle myself from a net, I have since (since I finished this last Saturday) been feeling more and more annoyed by it.
But the last thing I want to do is just talk about me. There's plenty more I have to say about the story, and its accomplishments.
It is Victoria's fifteen year old sister, Isolde, and two other girls - Julia and Bridget - who occupy the present-tense story. They all take private saxophone lessons from "the saxophone teacher", who is more interested in prying into their lives and hearing their suppressed girlish yearnings, desires and sexual appetites - and who tries to get an affair going between Isolde and Julia.
The other story, the one beginning several months back, is about Stanley: an aspiring actor at the drama college that's in the same building as the saxophone teacher's studio. The first year students' end-of-year assignment is to put together an original play without any assistance from the teachers. The students have the idea to turn the neighbouring school's sex scandal into a play; at the same time, Stanley starts going out with Isolde without knowing she's Victoria's sister.
The Isolde story is often narrated as if it were a play, which led to some of my initial confusion until I accepted that this was just a spiffy narrative device (perhaps meant to tie the two stories closer together) and not meant to be taken literally. It is at the end, though, where there are a few short scenes, again told like a scene from a play, that don't make sense either way you take it. Compared to the rather lovely yet also acidic descriptive style of the girls' story, Stanley's chapters are more clear-cut, less experimental-sounding. Towards the end, I think Catton did try to tell me how to read it, but it failed to make enough of an impression to work:
'There are people who can only see the roles we play, and there are people who can only see the actors pretending. But it's a very rare and strange thing that a person has the power to see both at once: this kind of double vision is a gift. If your daughters are beginning to frighten you, then it is because they are beginning to acquire it. I am speaking mostly to the woman beneath Mrs Winter, Mrs Sibley, Mrs Odets, and the rest,' [the saxophone teacher:] adds, 'the actor I pretend not to see, the woman who plays all women, all the women but never the girls, never the daughters. The role of the daughter is lost to you now, as you know.' (p.301)
There, she refers to the double act - like the double act of the story, and how we the reader get to see both at once. Overall, though, this novel was too experimental, too crowded with fancy narrative devices, too obtuse in an attempt to be clever - a promising author, a great debut, but some new authors just have to get it out of their system or something and stop over-doing it. (Here's my narky side coming out. Seriously, my final impressions of this book are out-weighing all the lovely stuff that came before it.)
So, focus Shannon focus. The good stuff. First can I talk about the saxophone teacher a bit more - she's a weird one. She comes across very strongly, however you want to imagine her physically: it's her mannerisms, her sharp intense eyes, the way she talks to people - completely unrealistic; it's more like we're hearing what she's thinking but as dialogue. Like here, on page one:
She leans across the desk. 'Mrs Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way: a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud.'
Mrs Henderson is looking down, so the saxophone teacher says rather sharply, 'Do you hear me, with your mouth like a thin scarlet thread and your deflated bosom and your stale mustard blouse?'
I love it, I do - I read this page in the bookshop and knew I wanted to read more. But how do I read this? I'm not looking for an answer from anyone: only the book itself can tell you how to read it. But it didn't. The saxophone teacher has some wonderful lines - acerbic, entertaining, faintly ominous, definitely creepy. Why does she take such an invasive interest in her students' psychological and sexual development? Except Bridget, of course. As she never fails to tell anyone, including Bridget's mother, Bridget was a plain, dull, easily-overlooked girl. I wonder why she was in the story at all, especially considering how she left it. And then, not only are we uncertain whether what we are being told is true, but Julia and Isolde seem to make up stories for the saxophone teacher - or do they? Oh it does my head in! And what was that scene at the end, where they suddenly break out into a very well-scripted imitation of the saxophone teacher and her friend (who often comes across as an imaginary friend, or someone the saxophone teacher loved)?
There's so much going on in this book, especially the Isolde side of the story, I couldn't possibly talk about it all. But, since every time I try to talk about a positive I end up discussing it as a negative, I'm not going to try to do either, just tell you my impressions as they come. I mentioned at the beginning that part of me found it wanky, lecturing and unrealistic. It can be lecturing because it labours the point at times, and unrealistic because everyone speaks with the same sophisticated, introspective, mature and well-educated voice. The actors putting on the play create dialogue for their characters that sounds exactly like what the real characters have been saying. Isolde speaks just like Julia just like the saxophone teacher just like the omniscient narrator. Everyone talks like this:
The saxophone teacher suddenly feels weary. She sits down. 'Mrs Bly,' she says, 'remember that these years of your daughter's life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after. Remember that it's in her best interests for everything to go wrong. It's in her best interests to slip up now, while she's still safe in the Green Room with the shrouded furniture and the rows of faceless polystyrene heads and the cracked and dusty mirrors and the old papers scudding across the floor. Don't wait until she's out in the savage white light of the floods, where everyone can see. Let her practise everything in a safe environment, with a helmet and kneepads and packed lunches, and you at the end of the hall with the door cracked open a dark half-inch in case anyone cries out in the long hours of the night.' (p244)
There is consistency to it, though; I just found it a bit much. What I did love was Catton's insight - I actually made tiny little dogears on a few pages where something really resonated with me, in that "Yes!" way. Little things, little insights into teen psyche, things that you thought were just you. 'In high school I kind of tried things on,' [Stanley:] said, 'just to see what it was like. Even when I got mad or upset or had a fight with someone, it was like I was just trying it on, just to see how far I could push it. There's always this little part of me that's not mad, that stays sort of calm and interested and amused.' (p.90) Oh I remember that so well! And this, I had a friend who did this:
'This girl, Willa,' Bridget says, 'she was in my remedial English last year and heard me say mizled out loud and the teacher told me the right way to say it and we all laughed about it, because it was such a stupid mistake. And then last week we were sitting at lunch, a whole group of us, and Willa starts telling us about how she always thought mizle was actually a word, and she says mizled instead of miss-led. She repeats the whole story back to us as if it's her own.' (p.105)
There are passages of sublime description that truly make me feel it, because the words Catton chose perfectly capture and resurrect true instances, memories, ghosts of memories, from my own life.
Isolde draws herself up tighter, as if she is gathering in all the threads of herself, all the fraying pieces, wadding herself up in order to be able to continue. When she speaks her voice is half-stifled with a kind of muted hurt that makes Stanley throb and look away. (p.314)
This is a marvellous book, I will say that. Look how long I've waffled on for! (If I had more time, I'd go back and edit properly to shorten it, tighten it up, make it more readable and less of a slog, but time I don't have.) It is a great work of art, it really is. I'm deeply impressed. But, but, it doesn't cancel out my aggravation, my sulky feeling of being let down at the end, my unsatisfied curiosity over the truth, or my faint boredom over the uneventfulness of it all.
To make up for this messy, rather negative review, I recommend you read Claire's incredibly intelligent, positive review over at The Captive Reader. Don't be put off my own reaction to The Rehearsal - it's very much worth the read.(less)
Set during the desegregation of Boston's public schools, when buses sent white kids to "black" schools and black kids to "white" schools, Map of Irela...moreSet during the desegregation of Boston's public schools, when buses sent white kids to "black" schools and black kids to "white" schools, Map of Ireland is the story of an Irish-American living in the very Irish neighbourhood of South Boston, who loves to set fires and whose colouring of red hair, white skin and freckles is called a "map of Ireland".
Ann Ahern is sixteen. It's 1974 and she observes with little opinion the white Catholic mothers throwing stones at buses of black children. She's more concerned with her own blossoming sexuality - she's only interested in girls - and the black exchange teacher at school, Mademoiselle Eugénie, who teaches French. She's from a family of five; her father has been gone for years. Life isn't easy, but above all Ann's filled with a yearning, as well as unsettled confusion.
When Mademoiselle Eugénie's car is set on fire by some white boys and she disappears from school life, Ann is worried. But when one of the two black girls on her basketball team, Rochelle, offers Ann the chance to see the French teacher she's so infatuated with, she leaps at the chance - and at the adventure and discovery that comes with it.
While it's a short novel at less than 200 pages, it reads long because it has so much to say - even though, upon reflection, not all that much really happens. It's Ann's commentary - on life, on white-black relations, on this moment in history that she barely understands, on her own urges and desires - that propels the novel. Perhaps it's Ann's incredibly real voice, but you feel, while reading this, that you've been swept back in time. It's gritty, it's sympathetic, and it's the closest you might be able to come, if you weren't around in the 70s or in America, to knowing what it must have been like during desegregation, especially how people thought at the time. The book doesn't pass judgement - it doesn't need to - but it doesn't shy away from "telling it like it is" (or was), as they say.
Ann is a great character - as one reviewer said (I like this quote): "Ann Ahern wants, literally, to climb out of her own skin, to be part of something larger than herself. This urgency fuels the novel and makes her unforgettable - unknowable, but unforgettable." (Los Angeles Times) I could never have said it as well as that, but it captures it perfectly.
It's harder to capture the style, Ann's voice, how she injects herself into every word. It's unpretentiously written, and finely crafted. I want to share a glimpse of it, so I've randomly picked a paragraph to quote:
"The Black hallway ran the length of the house. Beyond the living room, were two doors. I figured, maybe, the Black bedrooms. I crept along. I felt inexplicably sad. In ninth grade, when I got in trouble for tonguing Laura Miskinis in the ear, the headmaster had called me a pervert. I knew then, he had the wrong word. Perverse means twisted. What I'd done was simple, straightforward: a tongue, an ear, a current of feeling. What I was doing now, in Mademoiselle Eugénie's house, was perverse. Sneaking around. A lone White in a Black house. Trespassing."
If you're interested in black history - especially African-American history - then Map of Ireland should definitely be on your reading list. This is also a great work of lesbian fiction, and even though it's not marketed as YA it would be a great teen read as well.(less)