Clara Callan

by Richard B. Wright
415 pages,
ISBN: 0002005018

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Clara Callan, A Story of Two Sisters
by Cindy MacKenzie

Richard B. Wright wins the Giller Prize & the Governor's General Award

With eight highly acclaimed novels behind him including the Giller and Governor General-nominated The Age of Longing, Richard B.Wright has written yet another novel that has clearly marked him as a formidable presence in Canadian literature. The Giller Prize-winning, Clara Callan, is a beautifully written, compelling innocence-to-experience story that gives us an intimate look into the lives of two sisters, Clara and Nora Callan, over a period of years marked by change and uncertainty, 1934-1938.

Written in epistolary style, Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan convincingly adopts the voice of the female characters who begin a correspondence after their father, the local school principal, dies and Nora makes a decision to move to New York. Through his natural, fluent and unfailingly "female prose", Wright creates two very different women: the worldly Nora¨pretty, self-possessed, with a bent for the theatrical, and the philosophical Clara¨a small-town (Whitfield, Ontario) spinster/teacher who exemplifies the expression "still waters run deep." The striking differences between the two sisters provide the novel with a lovely range of tone and plotline from the sparkling "gossip" of Nora's New York social life to the wise, melancholy tone of Clara's solitary small town life¨two very different and alluring voices that make it difficult to put the book down.

Wright's credibility as a male writer sympathetic to the female consciousness is particularly evident in his creation of the introspective female protagonist. Of the recent novels that experiment with authorial gender-switching such as Carols Shields' Larry's Party and Wally Lamb's I Know This Much is True, Wright's is by far the most complex and convincing. Moreover, Clara's character provides Wright with a vehicle that enriches the literariness of the novel¨in large part because her poetic nature allows Wright to make through her some splendidly memorable insights into human experience as well as frequent references to poets such as Henry Vaughn, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden¨references which provide the novel with a thematic underpinning established by the Rilke poem that serves as the epigraph: "And if the worldly forget you,/say to the silent earth: I flow./To the swift water say: I am." Clara, writing her own poem about a woman at the piano looking at the falling snow, ponders her ars poetica to discover her raison d'Otre: "But right now I take delight in waking, in the opening petals of a flower, in playing my piano; everything is charged with a special music. With what I might call "The Perfectly Ordinary Day."

Clara's way of seeing the extraordinary wonder of the ordinary world around her contrasts sharply with her old friend-by-duty, Marion Webb, whose "orthopedic boot" offers an image representative of the limitations of small town living that come from smalltown thinking¨limping through life burdened by the handicap, oppressed by the role society has prescribed for her. Marion, as Nora points out, already seemed old even in high school. Wright's depiction of the women emphasizes the courage of a pragmatic Clara in a small town world, unsympathetic to and suspicious of the life of the single female, particularly as she endures a sexual assault carried out by a filthy vagrant and his dimwittedly obedient companion. The attack leaves her pregnant and forever haunted by repugnant memories and disturbing dreams dominated by his "prying wheedling voice" and images of his "wide monkey" mouth, his strong bony wrists, and his unforgettable stench. Having given up for some time on faith and "learning to live in a world without God," Clara's strength in coping with this experience is assisted primarily by the stabilizing routine of her teaching schedule and her ability to see the attack in philosophical terms:

I was thinking how suddenly a life can become misshapen, divided brutally into before and after a dire event. So it must be with all who endure calamity: those who must remember the day of the motor car accident, the afternoon the child fell through the ice, the winter night's blaze that awakened the dreamers.

Clara's cruel initiation into experience and the realization that there's evil in the world occurs just as Mussolini and the threat of fascism is growing in the world outside her. Wright's novel operates on tensions between the microcosmic events of a single life and those of the world at large.

Romance does enter Clara's life when she meets Frank, a married man who preys on lonely single women and who frequents the same movie theatre as she does. They begin a clandestine affair, what will become an "amorous adventure" escalating to what Clara describes as a kind of "carnal delirium" a "form of madness," a lust that can find no gratification. But in this novel, desire is seen as a double-edged sword that while passionate and joyous is also violent and life-changing¨where men do not show themselves well. Frank's betrayal stuns Clara but does not stop her, for in the end Clara finds no comfort or romance with Frank, but does find herself confronted with the dilemma of being pregnant again. Her decision to keep the child has enormous social ramifications: she loses her job and has to face the harsh moral judgement of the townspeople. And yet, it is a decision from which life begins again in the form of the baby Elizabeth Anne¨a strong feminist theme that Wright has adopted with ease.

Wright's feminism also shows in the depiction of female characters who are supported by a "sisterhood" that includes Evelyn, Nora's lesbian friend and writer, another example of a marginalized woman struggling within a world with very specific social expectations. Despite the more sophisticated friends and way of life that Nora and Evelyn have in New York, Wright emphasizes the richness of Clara's life that is a result of her poetic sensibility¨seeing in every sensory impression the capacity for a moment of happiness:

What was she thinking of? The elusive nature of happiness. How it arrives unbidden, a brief thrilling moment, summoned perhaps by a smell, a line of verse, a melody. In the senses may be found our source of joy. How it alights upon the heart like a colourful and mysterious bird upon a winter branch.

Wright's sensitively written¨again very female¨ final journal entry is where I think the novel should end. The surprise ending of the daughter's narration concerning her mother's life is a bit of a literary trick that seems to break the mood so beautifully sustained up to that point. Clara, the wise and tender mother behind her veil of harshness, speaks to her daughter in the novel's final paragraph in a way that emphasizes the profound significance of Clara's life:

I want so badly to help you realize, Elizabeth Ann, how difficult and puzzling and full of wonder it all is: some day I will tell you how I learned to watch the shifting light of autumn days or smelled the earth through snow in March; how one winter morning God vanished from my life and how one summer evening I sat in a Ferris wheel, looking down at a man who had hurt me badly; I will tell you how I once travelled to Rome and saw all the soldiers in that city of dead poets; I will tell you how I met your father outside a movie house in Toronto, and how you came to be. Perhaps that is where I will begin. On a winter afternoon when we turn the lights on early, or perhaps a summer day of leaves and sky, I will begin by conjugating the elemental verb. I am. You are. It is. ˛

Cindy MacKenzie teaches English at the University of Regina. She is the editor of A Concordance to the Letters of Emily Dickinson, published by the University of Colorado Press, 2000. She has published articles on Dickinson in the Emily Dickinson Journal, and in a forthcoming edition of essays on writing and addicition. She is currently working on a book-length study of the materiality of Dickinson's language entitled "I Dwell in Possibility": Dickinson's House of Poetry.


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