Early in Down There by the Train Levon Hawke interrupts as an old friend digresses from a rambling tale: "Sweeney, what's this got to do with the story?" Sweeney defends himself indignantly. Stories follow on from other stories, he says. Cut them off short, and you threaten their vital force. "You can't just knot them and break off any old where or they die out."
Kate Stern's second novel is a testament to the organic vitality of stories. They animate the small Ontario city in which young Levon has just been released from prison on a cold morning "with all due ceremony of a dog let out to pee." It's a city of grey institutions that we recognize from Sterns's much-praised first novel, Thinking about Magritte (1992). Although it bears a resemblance to her hometown of Kingston, Ontario, Sterns has transformed its limestone stolidity into a place of dreams, albeit often broken ones.
In this new novel she extends her imaginative reach to the island in the harbour, linked to the city by an irregularly running ferry. The island has a mythic quality stretching back to a pre-Contact past. Its native name of a dozen syllables means "either Long Island Standing Up or Short Island Sitting Down." European settlement, according to Sweeney, came about through a legendary mistake, a telegraph operator's error that abbreviated a request for fifty tailors' needles to "NEED FIFTY TAILORS."
Levon has been offered a job on the island by a cousin he has never met, but after his stop to eat at Sweeney's diner, he has missed the last ferry. Sterns sends him instead across the frozen lake, to emerge from a chilling mist in front of a dilapidated house. The scene of his landfall gives a good sense of Sterns's idiosyncratic style, heavily imagist, elliptical, and often surreal:
The sickle moon had been hard at work here, clearing trees to form a semicircle of land in which the house, tall and angular, stood brooding... its windows shuttered. There was a faint creaking sound, like an old woman shifting in her corset.... Icicles dripped from a snowy gable, a deserted bride's tattered hat and veil. A gnarled oak, thick around the middle, rapped insistently ű tap, tip, tap ű on a shutter, a suitor in disgrace, begging to be let in, to explain, and be forgiven.
The house turns out to be not entirely deserted. Inside Levon discovers a strange, elongated girl named Obdulia Limb. Their encounter is sexless but visceral: he has interrupted her in the process of poisoning herself. Both of these people are struggling with dark forces of loss. The melancholy Obdulia is a walking repository of memories through which she keeps her dead mother, Hereword, alive. And we learn that Levon's stretch in prison was the consequence of an earlier break-and-enter of a strange house under the influence of alcohol and grief at his sister's death.
As a writer Sterns fits somewhere in the school loosely circumscribed by Jane Urquhart, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, and perhaps Sandra Birdsell, stretching back to Sheila Watson and The Double Hook. She is in love with language, unable to resist a pun, and follows to the letter Sweeney's credo of faith¨"you can't just break off any old where"¨unraveling every loose thread of a tale, fingering every loose curl. She plays out images to the end of their tether. Slices of bread in Sweeney's diner do not merely go into a toaster and pop up again; Sterns tracks their descent, "two miners down a shaft, still white at the start of their shift but soon to be blackened and smelling faintly of carbon."
Levon starts work in a bakery in a deconsecrated church. More Willy Wonka than Wonderbread, this surreal operation is run by his cousin, a partner, and five quintuplet assistants. Levon boards with Berthe Tibeault, a septuagenarian bicycle enthusiast who also happens to be Obdulia's stepmother. The extraordinary conversations of the two young people continue.
Not much happens¨a cooking contest, an exhumation¨and readers fond of a pacey plot may grow restless with Sterns's baroque and often hectic prose. But Sterns's narrative seldom stalls. It rolls on in its intense, curious way, gathering up nuggets of knowledge, scraps of arcane lore from nineteenth-century medical theory to herbology to bakery history. And there are intriguing mysteries that nag at us, drawing us on. Who was the woman Sweeney once loved on the island? Who was Hereword's father?
Then there's the puzzling matter of the title: what train? Sterns's characters don't have anything to do with trains, especially on an island. They get around on foot, by ancient automobile, or bicycle. But we learn that from the island it is possible to hear the train on the mainland, like a juggernaut of harsh reality circling back to the same spot to blindside those too caught up in passions and dreams to hear it bearing down on them. So history repeats itself, spiritual paralysis deepens. It says something for Sterns's skill and compassion for her characters that we hope Levon and Obdulia will escape. And sometimes, after all, what flattens us is not grief or pain or loss. Sometimes it turns out to be love. ˛
Maureen Garvie is a writer and editor living in Kingston, Ontario.