I’m always drawn to tales of difficult families. These multilayered relationships can encompass so much love, pain, and betrayal. Poet Nina Berkhout sI’m always drawn to tales of difficult families. These multilayered relationships can encompass so much love, pain, and betrayal. Poet Nina Berkhout seeks to explore the nuances of family, beauty, and expectation in her debut novel The Gallery of Lost Species. Constance Walker, a failed actress from France, and her artist/custodian/collector husband Henry struggle to raise their two daughters in the face of their own disappointments. As youngest child Edith grows up, she discovers that love may not be any more real than unicorns, no matter how hard she tries to find either. Using the motif of the unicorn and the quest of cryptozoology to frame a story of addiction, failed dreams, and tested familial bonds, Berkhout has rich material to work with.
Berkhout’s main characters are stellar. Her portrayal of the beautiful, fading Constance is at once rich and uncomfortable. Con’s heartbreaks are so palpable, her behaviour deeply frustrating. She inflicts her own failures into her daughters’ very identities, lavishing too much destructive attention on eldest daughter Vivienne while neglecting Edith. Each sister secretly longs for what the other has. Edith is deeply aware of her own faults. How can she not be, when she’s constantly compared to her stunning older sister? Viv is a child beauty pageant queen, thin and graceful, while Edith is chubby and plain. Viv is an artist while Edith doesn’t believe she has any talent to speak of. Constance pours thousands of dollars into dance classes and stage costumes for Viv; Edith picks through garbage with their dad looking for treasures. Both daughters are given a lifestyle—heavily influenced by their parents’ baggage—they don’t want. As Viv increasingly rejects pageantry and turns to drugs and alcohol, Edith accepts moldy books and broken down furniture from her dad, too sympathetic to protest. Yet no matter how much Edith feels she pales compared to her self-destructive sister, wherever Viv goes, Edith yearns to follow. Her life is incomplete when she can’t react against her foil.
On a family vacation in Lake Louise, Edith spots the movement of an impossible animal in the distance and her dad confirms her suspicions through his binoculars: it’s a unicorn. On the same day, Edith sights something else: a geology student named Liam who will further complicate the already fraught relationship between the sisters. Her immediate infatuation with Liam (who is in turn smitten with Viv), her devotion to her sister, her disappointment in her parents, and her belief in the unicorn will push Edith through her formative years. She will always seek the illusive, be it a mythical being, her capricious sister, or a kind of happiness she doesn’t know how to achieve.
Berkhout’s language is beautiful as she draws the world around Edith, and we’re given some temporary relief from all the heartbreak in Edith’s relationship with Henry, doting father and failed artist. We get the sense that his relationship with his demanding wife is uneasy at best, but he tries always to instill wonder in his daughters, whether he’s promising an eventual trip to northern Canada to “paint the gold” they’ll find in the skies or giving the girls a tour through the National Gallery of Canada. “Henry and I were like bookends,” Berkhout writes. “We were allied in our pact to create little asylums where we could—antique shops and museums being the perfect places to evade Con and Viv’s feuds. And like bookends, we reinforced the pulpy novellas that made up our family library, preventing the unit from toppling over.” While the imagery sometimes overreaches (“My mother and sister’s bond ruptured into a million fragments like a pile of shattered glass at a bus shelter,” for example) Berkhout’s evocation of place is marvelous, particularly the nature vacations taken in Edith’s youth and the rarefied world of the National Gallery where Edith later works. The descriptions of the hierarchy of docents, gallery staff, and scholars is fascinating, and the real-life art installation The Child’s Dream, a unicorn created by Damien Hirst, anchors the adult Edith’s story expertly.
Unfortunately, that poet’s sensibility is also one of the book’s failings. It tries to cover too much story in too little space, feeling at times incomplete. Told in the first person, the narrator’s voice never really feels like a thirteen-year-old girl trying to come to grips with big, difficult issues. Her eye is too astute, her understanding too quick and adult. And the voice is steadily adult from age 13 to twentysomething, without any naivete or childishness to lose. This narrative style would fit better in retrospect, an already grown Edith looking back at the mistakes of her teenage years. Because of this displaced feeling, the book’s temporal setting is also off. Until its midpoint I was certain I was reading something in the 70s, the distance and and slightly antique cast to the words quite Wonder Years. The sudden appearance of an SUV surprised me. Cell phones are then mentioned a couple of times, and Viv receives an iMac for her birthday, placing the book’s span from the late 90s to the late 2000s. But there is no pop cultural or technological context. No computers or internet in the first half, no MySpace or MP3s or watching Friends or the Disney Channel. Sheltered though Edith is, it’s unbelievable that she would be so removed from the world she inhabits. When a twenty-year-old Edith tries to seduce Liam, he snaps “Stop it, Edith. This doesn’t become you.” I can’t imagine any twentysomething man in the 2008 reacting like this. The poetic stageiness paints a beautiful picture but creates a sense of unreality that I don’t think the author means.
A nuanced exploration of a family falling apart and a sister who wants to stay lost, this is not quite the novel it aspires to be. There’s more story to tell than is presented here, and more can be done with its weighty themes. Though it is at times unmoored and not always realistic, the emotion is nevertheless genuine. The Gallery of Lost Species, which addresses the slippery nature of beauty, is itself a frustrating but beautiful read....more
San Francisco, 1876: During an unbearable heat wave and a dangerous outbrea3.5/5. For this and other reviews, please visit EditorialEyes Book Blog.
San Francisco, 1876: During an unbearable heat wave and a dangerous outbreak of smallpox, Blanche Beunon bends over to unlace her boots and bullets fly over her head, killing her new friend Jenny Bonnet almost instantly. Blanche is sure her lover and his best friend are behind it, that the bullets were meant for her. Jenny, a prototypical coucher surfer who makes her living catching frogs for restaurants and has done jail time for her habit of wearing men’s clothing, was simply in the wrong place. But can it be more than that? From the notorious House of Mirrors where Blanche dances to Chinatown where she and her lover live, Frog Music draws a picture both bright and bleak of post–Gold Rush San Francsico and brings to life a real unsolved murder.
Blanche, a former Parisian circus performer, pays the bills as a celebrated burlesque dancer and sometime-prostitute, and has saved enough money to buy the rooming house in Chinatown in which she and her lover Arthur live. Arthur and his friend Ernest live la vie boheme, which for them mostly means living off and freely spending Blanche’s earnings. Everything changes when the trouser-wearing frog girl Jenny accidentally drives her high-wheeler bicycle into Blanche. She follows the dancer home and asks some guileless but uncomfortable questions that cause a series of tragic events to unfold. In particular, Blanche realizes how little she knows about the “farm” where she pays to have her and Arthur’s one-year-old son P’tit fostered. The narrative jumps back and forth between the murder and its aftermath and Jenny and Blanche’s burgeoning relationship and the havoc caused by the reintroduction of the baby into Blanche, Arthur, and Ernest’s carefree lifestyle.
The present tense narration puts the reader directly into the action. This immediacy makes us remember that these aren’t just characters, but living, breathing people. I love this kind of historical fiction. Donoghue has meticulous research skills and an immense imagination. She gives us a huge, intricately woven tapestry: San Francisco is as much a character as a setting here. From restaurants and saloons to bawdy houses to parks, everything is created in vivid detail. We can see the the little yellow flags hanging outside doors, feel the horror that smallpox resides within. The stifling heat wave, the brimming xenophobia, the glorious multiculturalism, and the expansive freedom our post-Prussian-war main characters feel in America makes for a delicious reading experience. And the mystery of who shot Jenny, and whether the killer had meant to aim for her or for Blanche, is satisfyingly convoluted. Many different characters have means and motive, and the fact that Jenny’s death is already inevitable tinges even the fun and intimate scenes with tragedy.
Blanche is a fascinating heroine, a woman in the 19th century who genuinely loves sex and is entirely comfortable with her sexuality. She’s fashionable, shrewd with money, and not maternal. Her fight for her baby is far more a matter of will and a sense of duty than love or instinct. This is a refreshing take on motherhood and womanhood. Too, Blanche’s emotional journey is engrossing: from blithe ignorance and meek submission, letting Arthur call the shots even though she is the breadwinner, toward a fuller sense of self-worth. The best moments of the novel come when she is interacting with the boisterous Jenny. Though Blanche makes her living as a burlesque dancer and prostitute, she is in many ways the upright, buttoned-down straight woman to Jenny’s quite literally free-wheeling, jolly, criminal life.
As charming as the high-wheeling, cross-dressing frog hunter is, because we only see her through Blanche’s point of view, and only in the flashback scenes, there is something of a detachment that occurs. Jenny never comes as alive as I wanted her to, remaining closer to a caricature as Blanche realizes how little she knows about her new, dead friend. The mystery of Jenny’s back story is compelling, and way she and Blanche connect so deeply and yet at the same time almost not at all, makes for the best kind of readerly frustration: you want more for these women than history has allowed them to have.
Frustrating in a less appealing way is the choppiness of the chronology. There is no real need to jump back and forth so much. The reliance on flashbacks rather than a straightforward timeline took me out of the narrative somewhat, rather than compelling me forward, and made it difficult to see Arthur and Ernest as the villains of the piece. It strains credulity somewhat that Blanche lived so closely with them for nine years, only to be turned on so quickly and fiercely. And because Donoghue incorporates so many historical, well-researched characters, at times the facts seem almost too crammed in, as though the ghost of each person gets to make a quick cameo in this fictionalization of their story.
Frog Music is nevertheless well worth the read for its lush historical detail, seedy glimpses into San Francisco’s underbelly, and twisty, turny, totally plausible explanation for who killed the real life frog catcher Jenny Bonnet. Blanche and Jenny, caught up in their tragedy, will stay with you long after you finish reading their story....more
What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brot4/5. For this and other book reviews, please visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brother bails on their customary joint gift for Grandma’s birthday? If you’re Iain Reid, you follow said brother’s advice and give your grandmother a gift uniquely suited to you: time. The Truth about Luck is Reid’s memoir of the week he and his grandma took a staycation together. It’s an unassuming premise that unfolds into a quiet, funny, and insightful book.
Reid offers to take his 90-year-old grandmother on vacation for a week to celebrate her birthday. He doesn’t mention that due to cashflow issues, the vacation is going to take place in his apartment in Kingston, a couple of hours away from her home in Ottawa. Grandma doesn’t mind, though. In fact, she tells him that all her friends simply couldn’t believe he was doing such a nice thing for her. Reid’s guilt and neuroses that he can’t show Grandma a better time are overwhelmed by her relentless optimism and genuine pleasure at spending time with her grandson. They roadtrip together from Ottawa and over the course of the week go out for dinner, enjoying reading on rainy afternoons, take a ferry out to Wolfe Island, and find their conversation flowing more and more freely.
That’s it, really, as far as action goes. Reid’s style is sweetly self-deprecating, poking gentle fun at himself in a way that’s never grating. Pointing out his various fears (what if she doesn’t have a good time? What if she doesn’t like his place? Why doesn’t he have more food for her in his home? Most of all, what on earth will they talk about for that length of time?!), he allows Grandma to be the star throughout his narrative. She takes her time in all things, moving slowly, eating daintily. She enjoys a good meal out. And she is the biggest non-complainer I’ve ever come across. She’s genuinely delighted by every small kindness, every opportunity. Even as Reid frets that he hasn’t enough activities to do with her, she’s pleased to curl up in a chair and just read for a few hours—she never has time to do that at home. Grandma’s attitude is a thing of beauty.
At the beginning, Reid is a bit apprehensive about the upcoming trip. He hasn’t spent this much one-on-one time with his grandmother, ever. Reid and his grandma have known each other all his life, of course, but they have a relationship that is probably familiar to many readers: they are sort of strangers as adults, familiar with each other only in the context of child/elderly relative. Although they don’t go very far geographically, theirs is a shared trip towards a closer relationship, getting reacquainted in a way that deepens their respect and affection for one another. There are silences at the beginning; Reid wonders after a bit of sherry filched from his parents’ places loosens the flow of conversation if he can just keep Grandma a bit tipsy for the whole trip. As they spend more time together, though, they begin to tell stories and to really talk to one another. This is one of the books major themes: the importance of shared stories and memories. The stories go both ways, with Iain sharing tales of his childhood that Grandma didn’t know, and Grandma telling him about her fascinating life story, including as a nurse in the war, and how she met his grandfather. Grandma apologizes for talking so much, but Iain is delighted to listen to her. Seeing the quantity and quality of their discussions improve as they get used to one another’s presence is a wonderful path to follow along with.
Reid’s portrayal of grandma is incredibly human. She lives and breathes on the page, a wholly real person who is never reduced to a cliché. She is frail and forgetful at times. She loves cheese. She is never the “wise old elder” stereotype, even though she certainly has wisdom to share. As they talk and discover how much they have in common (as well as the many ways their worldviews and life experience have rendered their outlooks very different), themes of loneliness, and the difference between being lonely and being alone, emerge. Perhaps my favourite motif throughout is the idea of “treating” yourself or your loved one. Grandma says this regularly, and it’s not just a throwaway phrase: when she goes to the mall on a weekday morning for a breakfast out, she is giving herself a treat, and when she insists on paying for dinner with Iain, she is giving a treat to him. It’s just a lovely concept, to accept small favours and kindness with a little extra grace and gratitude.
This is a lovely read, a quiet story where not a lot happens, and that’s okay. I lost my grandma not too long ago, and this book made me miss her keenly. I was lucky to have her into my late twenties, equally lucky to have a good relationship with her. She used to love telling me stories about her years as a teenager living in Toronto, and when I visited her in her small town, I would show her photos of the Distillery District or tell her about walking down Yonge Street where she once walked. It was pleasure to spend a week with Iain Reid and his grandma, to think about my grandma, to ruminate on the importance of telling stories and sharing memories....more