HOW CAN A CHILD feel isolated when she has the company of 10 brothers and sisters? Yet that is precisely what Sandra Birdsell remembers feeling almost 50 years ago in Morris, Manitoba. The child above was too old to play with her, and the twins below turned to each other. Birdsell was a child detached. She was also by nature rebellious, a school dropout who took up wandering and waitressing at the age of 15.
There is much more, of course, but maybe that's all you need to know. You may anticipate that details of writers' lives turn up in their stories. And you may take it as a given that Birdsell is a keen observer of family ties. I read The Chrome Suite in great chunks, and only later did it occur to me how complex the novel is. It was like going for a morning swim and losing track of time, only to discover later that you had crossed a vast channel. A fluid quality to Birdsell's prose bids you move ever onward, even into dark and menacing corners where unseen forces bind families, make them crackle with tension, make them unravel. She is that rarity, a consistently interesting writer with an original voice.
Her two shortstory collections, Night Travellers and Ladies of the House, explore small-town life and find it hellish at times: a mother, for example, ponders abandoning her children, but stops short. Birdsell's first novel, The Missing Child, which won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1989, similarly sketches people without options. But as oddball and dreamy as Birdsell's characters seemed, something in their presentation made me accept them. If one character swallowed live frogs as a defence against cancer, I learned as a reader not to blink.
Meet Amy Barber, the central character of The Chrome Suite. She is 42, wary of a lump in her breast, and recovering from a tragic relationship with a man. Adult relationships figure prominently, but it's Amy's experience growing up on the Prairie in the late 1950s that assigns this fiction its power. As Margaret Atwood captured the tensions that divide young girls in Cat's Eye, so Birdsell explores the tensions -sexual, emotional, territorial - that fill nine-year-old Amy Barber's house in Carona. She is the awkward child who is called "brat" by her teenage brother, Mel, barely tolerated by her older sister, Jill, and seen as a bad seed by her mother, Margaret.
In the Barber kitchen is the new chrome suite of the title - "a table with bowed chrome legs, grey mottled Arborite top and matching plastic-covered chairs, which wheeze when you sit on them. Fatting chairs, Amy calls them." But a brooding sexual tension pervades the family, and Amy is attuned to it. While her travelling salesman husband is away, Margaret secretly lusts after a neighbour: "My bed is winter," she writes in her diary, which Amy reads. While the three children are on a picnic together, Mel finds a spot in a public park to have sex with his date. Later on, his innocent attempt to console Jill - who was kicked during an incident at the park -becomes an incestuous encounter. Margaret consummates her desire for the neighbour (most unhappily), and later goes skinny-dipping in the dark with some young men she has just met. In the end, Margaret finds religion; Amy finds she doesn't belong.
Amy was once hit by lightning at a cemetery and believes she is "inoculated ... immune to what normally struck other people down." But, of course, she is not immune. "Not a single loving person at her centre," she would later write of herself. She wanders to another town, finds a mate, has a child. Her growing fear as a mother is not that she will abandon her young son, but that she will in a fit of rage kill him. The Chrome Suite is about loss. Amy, after she learns to write about her life, puts it this way: "She mourns, as much as she knows how to, her own loss, the pouty mouth, the nimble, tanned fingers, her child, her childhood."
In one of the most powerful scenes in the novel - and there are many like it - Amy is terrorized by punks in a park and in desperation yells all the swear words she knows - "assholes," "pigs," "fart-faces." The power of words rescues her. A way to wrestle with demons, she later sees, is to name them.
The Chrome Suite seems to have been written from some deep, dark well of inspiration. My interest in the older Amy was not always sustained, but this child, her mother and siblings and their curious turns, their town - all seem numbingly real. That bruised child Amy Barber may finally bring her creator the recognition she so richly deserves.