||Getting Her Drift
by Anne Denoon
DESPITE THE FACT that every story in Suimming toward the Light could successfully stand alone, I finished reading the hook with the strong impression that it is AS Much a novel as a collection of short stories. All 13 pieces deal with the same set of characters, and although some are written in the third person, others in the first, all reflect the experience and sensibility of the books protagonist, Madge, whose life from childhood to middle age is told in more or less chronological order. Joan Clark`s narrative style is discursive, in the manner of reminiscence or conversation, though there is nothing self-consciously experimental or impressionistic about it. Thoughts, events, And places that have affective, rather than temporal or ,,eographical affinities are brought together within each story, and some incidents appear in more than one. Although (_Mirk`s writing is never less than strong, clear, and coherent, her method presents a challenge to the reviewer, for her stories tend to defy synopsis, or even a compact statement of what any particular one is 11 "about." Instead, the book`, effect is cumulative, and it`s the overall pattern of Madge`s life that remains in the reader`s mind, rather than the narrative thread of ,my individual story.
The first story -- or opening chapter -- is a deceptively simple assemblage of scenes from a wartime coastal summer in Nova Scotia. However, it establishes many of the themes that run through the series: the child Madges preoccupation with her feckless, jaunty, self-deluding father, Laddie; her ambivalent devotion to her resigned, fragile, and somewhat remote mother, Beth; and her sense of being the complementary opposite of her slightly prissy older sister, Ardith. In this story, the author also evokes the aura of mystery that, to a child, inevitably Surrounds her parents` personalities and lives. To Madge, "her father was a high wall she couldn`t scale.... There was no opening, tic way to get inside him to know what it was like to be him...." Of Beth, Madge thinks "There were crevices inside her, secret corners where she tucked away stirprising hits of information. The motif of mysteriousness, of secrecy, appears in almost every story, sometimes as a family
skeleton, like Laddie`s mother`s unmentionable suicide, sometimes as just a bit of odd behaviour, like Aunt Margaret`s confiscation of the family radio on VE Day. In
"War Stories," Madge reluctantly examines some inconclusive evidence of a possible wartime infidelity on Beth`s part, while reaching some new conclusions
about Laddie`s character. In "Sisters," Madge and Ardith`s determination to hold someone accountable for Beth`s accidental death, despite the opposition of
their father and aunt, seems to represent a search for some posthumous "truth" about Beth herself as well as an expression of the adult sisters` complicity. Still later, it) "Margaret`s Story," Madge finds herself sifting obsessively through the detritus of her dead aunts life, admitting, "I have been a snooper all my life ... peeling away layers to see what was beneath."
Another persistent motif is Madges attraction to the idea of -randomness and chance," her "inclination ... to drift like a seal with the incoming tide." The equanimity with which she -accepts a neighbour boy`s sexual advances in "Lima Moths" may presage her generally pragmatic attitude to adult sex and child-rearing, but her passivity seems at times merely a kind of stubbornness. In "Dickens`s Wife" she declares: "I saw motherhood as something you Surrendered to.... It was omnipresent, pervasive, it swallowed you whole." There`s a trace of defiance in that surrender, which is more explicit in her lethargic resistance to her hush-and`s domestic expectations: "I didn`t want cleaning help ... I didn`t think housework was important enough to pay someone to do it. I didn`t want to preside over dinner parties, to pass around hors d`oeuvres, plates of fancy dessert." And the random workings of fate may bring good luck" when her marriage disintegrates, Madge becomes a moderately Successful artist, making Sculptures from papier mache. "The Madonna Feast" refers to her delight in the fact that "her apprenticeship evolved when she did art projects in the basement with her children ... all the time she was mothering -- and mismanaging her marriage -- she was ... finding a way to rescue herself."
As Madge approaches middle age, a related, though slightly different image emerges in the stories: that of losing ones "Tay. "Point No Point" suggests that Madge`s getting lost in the woods as a child was a way of establishing a sense ot separateness from her father, while a similar experience as an adult feels rather like the process of life itself: "... the point is something she must stumble on, that will elude her if she tries too hard to find it." For Laddie, getting lost on Sunday drive, was once an enjoyable diversion, but 40 years later, as he loses his mental hearings
in senility, Madge sees his confusion as a loss of direction, of boundaries.
In the final story, which gives the book its title, Madge and Laddie return to the beach where, in "Luna Moths," they dug clams together. Now, however, Laddie is in a wheelchair, close to death. Again, Clark uses images of wandering, of searching in darkness, to express the unpredictable, mysterious trajectory of a life. Madge`s childhood memory of swimming at night, terrified, but urged on by her father to follow a flashlight`s beam, i`s linked to her strange impulse at the time of her marriage breakdown, when "she put her four children into the station wagon and drove around Halifax all night ... driving in circles, stopping at school grounds and shopping centres. " In the course of this story, Madge finds she has come to terms with the exasperating Laddie, realizing that as an artist she shares her father`s propensity for decep tion, and having felt the sting of her own child`s reproaches. Walking through the darkened streets of Halifax on the night of his death, she experiences a sort of epiphany that brings the story, and the collection, to a soaring conclusion. At that moment it is evident that Swimming toward the Light is a unified work of rich ness and subtlety that is much more than just the sum of its parts