Marion Quednau's The Butterfly Chair,
a deeply persuasive portrait of a family held together
by love and hatred until murder and suicide break
it apart, is the best first novel of 1987
THE W.H. SMITH/BOOKS IN CANADA First Novel Award for 1987 has been won by Marion Quednau for The Butterfly Chair, published by Random House. The novel tells the story of a marriage as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Else. Gerhard and Charlotte, postwar immigrants from Germany, seem to have a perfect marriage and a happy family life, but gradually, inevitably, their fives are drawn to disaster by bitter memories of the war and by the deepening of the husband and wife's unhappy dependence on each other, he confusing pride and brutality, she love and passivity.
It took Quednau "six or seven years" to write it: two years spent in research into the patterns of violence in families ("research and avoidance" Quednau adds). When she began the actual writing, she found the story taking the form of separate, almost self?contained episodes, in language that was too compressed and imagistic for a prose narrative. "I had begun my writing career as a poet and my prose style was affected ?? I tend to write in distilled poetic style." The scene of the parents' death was originally placed about threequarters of the way through the book. "Fortunately," Quednau says, "I was given good editorial advice." The scene is now in the opening chapter ?? "like a heavy stone dropped in water" ?? as the author describes it, "and once that was done, I went on to try to create the vortex moving outward, to write the ripples" ?? the effects of those facts in Else's life and in the fives of others, including, 15 years later, Else's fiance.
Marion Quednau fives in Mission, B.C. She is now at work on a second novel, which she promises will be very different: it is the story of two young wanderers in the 1960s.
The judges for this year's competition were Nigel Berrisford, vice?president and book marketing director for W.H. Smith, novelists Jane Rule and Mordecai Richler, and critic Robert Fulford. The other books on the short fist were Fire Eyes, by D. F. Bailey (Douglas & McIntyre), Squatters' Island, by W. D. Barcus (Oberon), The Blackbird's Song, by Pauline Holdstock (Simon & Pierre), and Selakhi, by Sean Virgo (Exile). The panel's choices resulted in a tie between
The Butterfly Chair and The Blackbird's Song. in accordance with the rules of the contest, Books in Canada's first?novel columnist for the year 1987, Janice Kulyk Keefer, cast the deciding vote.
Nigel Berrisford: My choice for the winner this year is The Blackbird's Song. I had a hard time choosing between this book and The Butterfly Chair, but the sheer originality of Holdstock's story makes it the superior book. The setting ?? China in the 1900s ?? is beautifully realized, the topic is unusual, and the characters are real and interesting.
The Butterfly Chair is a very good first novel, with some remarkable scenes. It belongs in the mainstream of wellwritten Canadian fiction. I think in most years it would have been my choice for the award.
D. F. Bailey's Fire Eyes is a very good, very readable psychological thriller. Its insight into the minds of two urban terrorists is remarkable and gripping.
Squatters' Island, by W. D. Barcus, has very well?drawn and evocative scenes of the Nova Scotia landscape, but the characters are not clearly portrayed and one grows bored after the first few chapters.
Selakhi, by Sean Virgo, I found totally incomprehensible. There are flashes of fight and passages of extremely good writing, but if a book is this hard to read there is something clearly wrong. The need for a ruthless editor screams from every page.
Robert Fulford: Sean Virgo's Selakhi contains one paragraph that says only: "Words, words, words." That's what Virgo has on his mind, and his choice of words indicates, to an unusual degree, his literary ambitions. He frequently uses exotic words ("rondaaval"), selfconsciously awkward words ("uglily"), and words I can't find in the dictionary ("entomic"). Virgo is word? intoxicated, and his novel sinks under the weight of his intense interest in language. He's so anxious to demonstrate an arcane vocabulary that he never sorts out his story: it's like an endless dreamsequence, in which characters appear and disappear without explanation, conversations are often half understood at best, and the author's intentions are never evident. Selakhi is the name of a coral island (mapped on the endpapers) where the young hero deals with his eccentric family, a possible murderer, and various sharks, some or all of them imaginary. Impatiently, the reader waits for a clarity that never emerges. There may be a reader who can appreciate Selakhi, but for me it wasn't worth the trouble it took to read it. Nor was Squatters' Island by W.D. Barcus, a Nova Scotia boy?growing?up novel. Barcus's vocabulary is plain, but his storytelling is as opaque as Virgo's and even less interesting. Fire Eyes, by D.F. Bailey, an attempt to see the fife of a psychotic criminal from within his own mind, begins as a wonderfully promising piece of work. Billy Deerborn's wounding childhood is observed in an original and acutely sensitive way. Unfortunately his progress towards grown?up violence is considerably less interesting and the colloquial style of the narrative grows tiresome.
The Blackbird's Song, by Pauline Holdstock, begins with some absorbing characters and an excellent setting: Christian missionaries from Canada find themselves caught in the Boxer rebellion in 1900, when the Chinese turn viciously against all foreigners. The despair of the missionaries under persecution, and their religious crisis ?? how useful is Christian belief in the face of extreme terror? ?? are well described. What keeps the novel from succeeding is its dourly unrelenting _quality, a sameness that eventually makes it dreary. Only 159 pages, it nevertheless feels long.
Marion Quednau's The Butterfly Chair, on the other hand, turns out to be a fresh and absorbing reworking of a now familiar theme: a daughter's relationship with an angry and violent father. In the first chapter an unsuccessful German?Canadian architect murders his wife and kills himself while their adolescent child watches. Else Rainer's problem, from that point to the end of the book, is how to keep her fife from being permanently encased within this event, and how in particular to prevent it from destroying her relationship with her lover, who is also ?? not coincidentally ?? an architect. Her careful investigation of the crime, 15 years later, is handled with skill and Else's reactions to the people she deals with are set forth with uncommon wit. The best of these novels, by a considerable distance.
Mordecai Richler: The clear winner, it seems to me, is The Butterfly Chair by Marion Quednau. An admirable performance, this, imaginative and informed by intelligence. Rare in a first novel and therefore doubly welcome are Ms.
Quednau's maturity and sense of economy. Her prose is sinewy, precise. And then, unlike some of the other finalists, she does bother to tell a story.
I had no second choice, though I did admire The Blackbird's Song, by Pauline Holdstock, for its ambition. It's not every first novelist who undertakes to write about three Canadian missionaries adrift in Honan province, China, during the Boxer rebellion, and, come to think of it, it's not every old one who finishes reading it. However, Ms. Holdstock is an intelligent observer and will write more accessible novels in the future.
Alas, I came up short in the third sentence of W. D. Barcus's Squatters' Island and 70 pages deep gave up, bored. It's wildly overwritten. The third sentence begins "Up the shore fog would be squatting on the shingle bank like a dog making water." Not bloody likely, even in Nova Scotia.
Possibly the most gifted prose writer of the lot is Sean Virgo. I strongly suspect he will go further than any of the other four and in the goodness of time, be forgiven Selakhi.
Jane Rule: The most intellectually and stylistically ambitious of the five first novels being considered for the award is Sean Virgo's Selakhi. Unfortunately neither the tone nor the principle of selection is under enough control to make either the intense poetic concentration of the language or the range of ideas add up to a novel so much as a grand romantic indulgence of imagination.
My choice is Pauline Holdstock's The Blackbird's Song, a forced journey by Canadian missionaries across China during the Boxer rebellion. The benign and superior isolation these missionaries have felt turns to terror as they flee the drought blamed on them. William, selfrighteous and rationalizing, loses his life. His wife, Emily, weakened by the death of her baby, demoralized by jealousy of the third member of their party, Martha, escapes with her only surviving child. Martha, addicted to morphine and China, returns. Historically accurate, psychologically astute, this novel accomplishes the author's intentions admirably.
A near second is Fire Eyes, by D. F. Bailey, the story of a deserted, traumatized, and finally institutionalized boy whose obsessive counting evolves into directive voices inside his head. Graduated from a group home, he joins the army where he is trained to assemble high explosives. Picked up and used by a disturbed young revolutionary woman, he becomes involved in political bombings. Though fast?paced, the novel never neglects the psychological complexity of the character. Unfortunately the choice of a first?person narration locks the author out of all his other characters who become too much simple functions of the plot.
Squatters' Island by W. D. Barcus and The Butterfly Chair by Marion Quednau also explore central characters who come of age and make some accommodation with limiting or destructive childhoods. The protagonist of Squatters' Island, Andrew MacDonald, grows up in a fishing village in Nova Scotia, son of the storekeeper whose wife has deserted him. Book bright, Andrew is not encouraged to educate himself but rather to learn to set lobster traps and read the meanings of the sea. Though he breaks away temporarily, he comes home with a wife who finally binds him to the narrow fife of the village. The characters in this book are minimally but accurately drawn against a landscape offered up in lyrical and majestic detail.
In The Butterfly Chair, Else Rainer must come to terms with the murder suicide of her parents. Remarkable portraits of two people locked into a dependent and destructive relationship and its effect on their children occupy the beginning of the book. Then Else, now thirty and unable to deal with a lover who wants to marry her, goes through the process of exorcizing these parental ghosts, variously researching, remembering, dreaming into an encounter with Carl Jung, and writing to her dead father. These fictional experiments are interesting and often insightful, but they are sometimes arbitrary and less persuasive than the stark realism of her childhood. The tragic becomes therapeutic, something more satisfying in fife than in art.
All of these books command language rare in first novels, and I recommend the last four to readers interested in our strong new generation of Canadian writers.
Janice Kulyk Keefer: Given that my present task is to choose between The Blackbird's Song and The Butterfly Chair, I can only recapitulate my comments from my review of these novels. Holdstock's text, though noteworthy, is not without important structural and conceptual flaws; Quednau's is of such a quality as scarcely to belong with other first novels ?? The Butterfly Chair is simply one of the finest, most accomplished novels to have appeared in this country for a long time.