HELEN URIE 's mother is a space cadet. Literally. Catherine Bush's Minus Time (HarperCollins, 338 pages, $22.95 cloth) opens with Helen and her brother, Paul, watching their astronaut mother blast off for an extended stay in space. Space
travel has long been the staple of SF, but Bush employs it here as a wonderfully rich, contemporary figure, evoking separation, emotional distance, barriers to communication, and more. Helen is at the centre of a web of separations: her
father left home years ago to help the victims of earthquakes, and hasn't yet managed to return. Her brother is a province away. And Helen keeps her distance from her new friends by telling gargantuan lies about who she is.
Minus Time is a book of stunning originality. Bush's narrative voice is documentary and largely unemotional; what she records is often surreal. The reader is made to see the familiar as if for the first time: the everyday seems strange, the strange seems everyday. Interspersed are sections narrated by Helen, whose voice is a lovely mix of naivety and irony.
Helen is also in search of herself. She says at one point, "I'm trying to figure out how to be true to myself in a world like this." So who is she? She is a daughter and a sister, and sorting out that relational self is one of her tasks. She also tries on a more radical self by joining a group of animal-rights activists ("United Species") led by her new friends Foster and Elena. And it is largely through her animal-liberation activities that Helen begins to liberate herself.
The intrigues and adventures of United Species are a riveting mix of horror and loony humour. When Foster takes Helen on a forced tour of a chicken-processing plant the details are revolting. But there's also something weirdly funny about the place, which is known, ominously, as "Chicken of Tomorrow." In this book, everything reverberates with everything else, which makes it hard to avoid thinking that one reason Helen joins up is that, in the glare of the media spotlight, she identifies with the chicken.
Because she and Paul opt out of some of the official "family" duties, NASA hires a stand-in family for' the consumption of the TV audience:
With the roar still swelling the air around them, the other Paul and other Helen leaned toward the camera, looked straight into the eye of the camera, and shouted into the microphones thrust in front of them, "We're so proud of her. It was amazing. We're incredibly proud."
Bush makes wonderful use of the imagery of aliens, and the question of who - or what - is "alien." And she has a great deal to say about technology and communication. But it's human memory and human communication that are central here, and as Helen fills in more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, she draws the reader irresistibly into her quest. She introduces a late chapter with these words: "These are the gaps, the moments I've tried not to remember." But Helen remembers it all. There are no gaps. This is a dazzling debut.
Like Minus Time, Carol Malyon's If I Knew I'd Tell You (Mercury, 141 pages, $14.50 cloth) is about presence and absence. As the book's opening lines suggest, it is also about illusion and reality: "There is something in the attic. Susan is beginning to believe this." It turns out there is no attic, and that Susan herself has never heard the noises that might suggest a presence. Because there is no attic, Malyon describes what isn't in it: no "ancestral treasures, no old treadle sewing machine, dressmaker's dummy, great-grandmother's bisque dolls, no wardrobe trunk of old clothes to dress up in at Hallowe'en." What is also not in the house is Susan's husband, who was killed in a car crash before the novel's opening. Susan is suffering the human equivalent of phantom-limb syndrome. She can't quite believe that her husband isn't there.
If I Knew I'd Tell You is largely about Susan's first steps in putting her life back together. It is also about Cassie, a girl who works at Civilizations, the restaurant where Susan passes her weekends, watching people and making notes for a novel. Cassie has lived with her grandmother since her parents' separation. Malyon is thus exploring different kinds of separations and losses: widowhood, divorce, and the losses within relationships, the losses (and gains) that come from revelations and revisions of the past.
In some ways, this might seem to be a book with narrow ambitions. For one thing, Malyon works with a very sparse cast of characters. For another, she carves out a very narrow slice of life: little time elapses and very few events transpire. When Susan begins to take some small steps towards resolving what might be occupying the nonexistent attic, it feels like a major breakthrough.
But lack of breadth should not be confused with lack of ambition. Within the narrow perimeter she's drawn, Malyon achieves some brilliant effects with the rhythms and sounds of prose. One chapter opens thus:
The noises keep on happening, & Angela gets more & more upset. Do something, she tells her mother. If it chews its way into my bedroom I'll leave home. Susan doesn't blame her. She won't stay inside the house herself.
The story unfolds in short bursts, chapters seldom exceeding two or three pages, some as short as a few sentences. Malyon manages the difficult (but necessary) trick of making the pieces work individually -almost like prose poems - and collectively as narrative. She also displays considerable insight into the way people operate. Cassie's father makes a virtue of the long hours he spends with his own father - who is unaware of his son's presence. When Cassie tells him he does this because it's easy, the illusion shatters like glass. Malyon's affection for her characters is evident simply in the detail with which they are conveyed. She has a sly sense of humour and a gift for arresting images. Though light years away from Minus Time, this too is a remarkable first novel.
At the beginning of Peter Oliva's Drowning in Darkness (Cormorant, 179 pages, $14.95 paper), a coal miner named Celi lies trapped inside a mine in the Crow's Nest Pass. While he waits to be found he imagines and remembers the story of Pep Rogolino, a fellow miner, and his wife, Sera. The crux of their story is her leaving Pep, and Celi's memories (or imaginings) swirl around that centre, approaching and then backing away, offering first this light on it, then another. Along the way there are memories of the homeland in Italy, of mine disasters, and a memorable anecdote about a horse that unexpectedly survived. That horse is linked to the mental collapse of Sunderd, the town's doctor. And Sunderd is linked to Sera's escape. In fact, the narrative is something like a series of interconnecting tunnels. One leads to another, but ultimately none of them leads anywhere. It is plain to see how intricately worked this labyrinthine structure is, and also how much care has been taken with the allusive, poetic language. And yet this book simply never captured my interest.
Why not? Perhaps the answer is character. Celi is a storyteller without a distinctive voice of his own, and thus without a persona. We learn very little about Pep, who is neither particularly likeable nor engagingly offensive. Sera and Sunderd too are insubstantial, and their actions do not seem to come from the heart of an individual but from an author's will. There is almost no story to speak of. This leaves only the story's surface, which, however deftly fashioned, is not enough.
Ven Begamudre's Van de Graaff Days (Oolichan, 295 pages, $14.95 paper) is an amiable tale of growing up in India and Canada. The little boy who moves from there to here is Hari, who must also begin to reconcile with the father from whom he has long been separated. After the family's arrival in Canada, about halfway through the book, the novel becomes more intense, perhaps because as Hari gets older the narrative becomes more and more his own. Hari's perceptions, conclusions, and especially his encounters with foreign ways of behaviour help to quicken what is sometimes an extremely leisurely pace.
The structure of the novel is in some ways similar to that of If I Knew I'd Tell You, though the individual pieces are less like prose poems than they are like self-contained short stories. But Begamudre, like Malyon, manages to make them cohere into a greater whole. Despite some longueurs, this is a gentle novel with vivid settings, a charming central character, and just the right ending.