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Ten Good Seconds of Silence

by Elizabeth Ruth
415 pages,
ISBN: 0889243018


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Revising a Life Story
by Janine Flaccavento

Our memories shape who we are. But what happens to our identity when we decide to forget certain things, when we purposefully dispose of memories and replace them with others? If we believe in and live this revised life story, than who is to say that it is not the history of our true self? These are the roots of Elizabeth Ruth's first novel, Ten Good Seconds of Silence. Memories are consciously erased¨memories of mental hospitals and stillborn brothers, of a dominating mother and a curious conception¨and they are replaced with a newfound purpose.

Steeped in the imagery of water and cultivated flowers, the prologue draws readers deep into a forest of wild flowers and Casablanca Lilies. We meet Lilith Boot, a clairvoyant who finds missing children, sitting on a bench, shoeless in her cotton housedress and straw hat, in the middle of the Allan Gardens. She is looking for her latest child.

Lilith was a twin, but her brother, the first to emerge, was stillborn. Lilith's mother, not unlike a parent of a missing child, never forgot the loss. "Ever notice," Lilith muses, "that in English there are widows and widowers, and there are even orphans, but there's no word for a mother who loses a child?"

There are many missing children in this story¨abducted by fathers, children who have fallen into frozen lakes, children lost, sometimes in their own heads¨who make up the fabric of an underlying anxiety. I never understood my mother's need to wait up for me when I was a teenager, and why she would get worried if I didn't call. In Ten Good Seconds, that fear of the unknown (the clichT ditch that I could have been lying in) resonates across the minds of the these children's mothers. Even Lilith is obsessed by her quest to find Benjamin, a lost boy she had met only once, years before at Bridgewater mental institution.

The adult Lilith co-exists with her teenage self as the reader is taken back and forth between Toronto, where Lilith lives with her growing daughter, Lemon, and Bridgewater in BC, where the teenage Lilith struggles to understand a mental illness that even her doctors cannot classify. The novel has a fluid structure, reminiscent of Janette Winterston's Sexing the Cherry; past, present and future mingle like old friends at a cocktail party. At one point Lemon suggests that "maybe you don't care if time bleeds itself." It is an interesting device. However, allowing the structure to move this freely can be distracting and abruptly pulls the reader out of Lilith's garden, making us wonder where, in time we are. Equally distracting are the changes in the narrative voice: sometimes it is Lilith guiding us through her life, and then, abruptly, we are introduced to an omniscient narrator and new characters whose lives are grafted on to Lilith's.

Ruth's excellent character development, however, makes up for any hiccups in the structure. In one line of dialogue or one description of clothing, these characters become real. Readers can hear the biting sarcasm in Lilith's mother's voice as Lilith at eighteen years of age, gives birth on her mother's kitchen floor. "It's time," Lilith says, "about time, you mean," her mother retorts. There's also Ruth's moving portrayal of Lemon, as a growing girl and then a starving teenager, who drifts around, and needs to know her father before she can understand herself.

There are two ways to conceive in this book, and Lilith holds to the belief that she had given birth to her daughter as a virgin, a result of parthenogenesis. Humans, like most plants, need some type of cross-pollination to procreate. Certain flowers have both male and female parts, including stamens, pistils and petals, and these are considered to be perfect because they are capable of self-pollination. Lilith sees herself as one such perfect organism. And in several wonderfully crafted pages, when Lilith visualizes Lemon's conception, like a clairvoyant now reading the mind of the unborn, Ruth writes: "I released one deep, soul-quenching holler as life forced the last of itself into my consciousness. Then, there were ten good seconds of silence. No voices ű no doubt. Insight had fully arrived: desperate and blue like it was an infant cut away from its own umbilical cord."

Just as there are two ways to conceive in this novel there also two ways to die: from either thirst or drowning. The women are always leaking; their porous cells let out memories, words, babies, and food causing flooded gardens and unrecognizable pasts. The men just drink it all up. Filling themselves will alcohol or burying themselves underwater. Ten Good Seconds of Silence is an excellent read, laced with rich and colourful metaphors, weaving its way through generations like a vine.

But as each new generation is born or each child is found, others are forgotten in the hope of erasing the tragedy that is associated with them. It is amazing how quickly our bodies forget trauma¨the pain of a childhood broken arm or the agony of childbirth¨are rarely sharp in one's mind years later. It seems in order to avoid total decay of the mind these memories must be released and swapped with something else; something to bring us closer to happiness. ˛

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