We have lost the knack of distinguishing major from minor literature, and so we are in the habit of raising upon pedestals work that is merely competent.
Like Janice Kulyk Keefer's The Green Library.
In this small story, shortlisted for this past year's Governor General's Award, we see signs of the literary in the chopped-up structure and the small hints and details dropped, to be picked up again in understated ways a hundred pages later. There's also the overtly literary raw material-the Green Library is a park in Kiev where people used to go to read and write, there is a major writer in the background of the story, and the main character defends her search for herself to others (and perhaps to herself at first) by saying she is researching a book. There's no better way, I've found, to get self-consciously literary people interested in a book than to make it self-consciously literary. And we do see what Keefer has been praised for in the past: her timeliness, her portrayal of the complexity of women's lives, and her small observations, like her description of the protagonist Eva's love for her mother: "she has never been able to love her mother the way a child does-selfishly, carelessly-but only as a lover: dazzled and unrequited, never able to take anything for granted, to be sure it would come her way again." We also have the potentially attractive story of a woman in search of her roots, whose fairly stable life begins to crumble as she is compelled to search ever deeper and more widely for the mysteries surrounding her heritage and her birth. In the process, we also get an awful lot on the subject of filial relationships, of women's love for men, and a little about men's love for trees.
More than enough, to be sure, in a world that is getting ever closer to confusing literacy for literature, to win Keefer an audience with a predisposition for the sort of territory she mines. But to put her on the Governor General's shortlist? Perhaps not surprising, considering Cordelia Strube was also included, but distressing nonetheless. This book is dull, flaccid, and weak. At its best, it is suspenseful, though there is more often the sense that there is a mystery being solved without ever having been established, and once the decision to begin the resolution is transparently made, on page 239, with the words, "I'm going to tell you a story, Eva. It's not going to make things any easier, but it might help you understand what's going on," we enter into a phase of dénouement worthy of Agatha Christie, perhaps, but surely not of a novel of weight or substance. A good novel either creates a destination worth reaching, or puts together a journey worth taking. A very good novel does both. The Green Library does neither. After such a long journey from Canada to the Ukraine and back, from 1933 to 1941 to 1949 to 1963 to 1993, and back and forth again, we weather an awful lot, to arrive, ultimately, at the conclusion that filial relationships, good, bad, or indifferent, are important.
As for the prose, Keefer has in this novel a definite tendency towards the self-consciously portentous, which serves to make turning points and defining moments banal. "We are a people who remember, Eva, even when there is nothing to remember but defeat and death. That is the only way we have kept ourselves alive-by remembering"; or "I am so sick of countries, Eva; of borders. As if people were born with maps where their hearts should be"; or the cri de coeur of Eva's opposite, Oksanna: "I'm so tired of hating when I want to love." We are also told, by the by and à propos of a certain loving couple of a certain evening, that sleep is "a ghost that refuses to haunt them till well into the morning." Melodrama masked as drama is not only painful, when recognized, but, when it is not, it can deceive readers into believing they're getting nourishment when in fact they're being fed red dye #4, getting insight, where in fact there is only confirmation of prejudice and expectations. We get, in The Green Library, an awful lot of what we've seen before. We get relationships, filial and otherwise, that could very understandably be of great concern to those involved in them. But, the characters being for the most part as one-dimensional as they are, it is very difficult to draw someone in from the outside. If there were just one or two fewer strong, mysterious, and eloquently silent foreigners, things could perhaps have been different. Or if, given the stereotypes we are offered, there were some sign of recognition on the author's part that they are, in fact, stereotypes, something could possibly have been done with that, too.
There is a place, and an honourable one, for stories such as Keefer's, but it is not on our nation's shortlists. If the narrative were cleaned up a bit, if the odd forays into fractured perspective-in which scenes we've just read from the inside are immediately re-fed to us from the point of view of, say, an otherwise unrelated woman looking down on the scene from a window above-were eliminated, if the subtlety for its own sake were erased, then we would have a perfectly good romance novel, suitable for translation into a made-for-TV movie or even, perhaps, the basis for a homegrown soap opera. Nothing wrong with that, and it might make both Keefer and HarperCollins good deal more money than going after the Canadian literature market.
But what we have, unfortunately, is a book with literary pretensions, a book that has made sacrifices for the sake of literature, but hasn't the substance or the style to make it worthwhile.
Bert Archer is a Toronto writer.