Diane Schoemperlen has written an uncategorizable book, which makes it difficult to review because all the usual comparisons are unavailable. Of course if you like, as I do, to have a writer take you by the hand and lead you down paths you did not know were there, then this may be your kind of book.
The story takes place in the present, in a nondescript mid-sized North American city. The narrator is a happily single middle-aged novelist living quietlyand working, or rather preparing to work, on her next novel. The story's premise is that the Virgin Mary, who is a bit worn out and in need of a short respite, has chosen to the narrator's house for a short visit and a rest. Her stay lasts only a week, but in that week both the narrator and the reader learn a good bit about Mary.
The Virgin Mary has always been something of a cipher for me. After all, she is mentioned few times in the New Testament, and says hardly anything. As Diane Schoemperlen imagines her, she is unmistakably divine, yet completely real. She behaves like the mother of our dreams, showing fathomless acceptance of us as we are, behaving like a considerate friend and, once in a while, even making a joke that we can share. She is practical and no-nonsense, but never to the point of insensitivity. Whatever she does seems to the narrator (and to us) as just right.
The book interweaves the narrator's life and the story of Mary's visit, with stories of other Marian apparitions that have been reported in the past two thousand years (there have been twenty thousand of them). But there is at least one other dimension to the book, and that is the examination of the relationship between fact, fiction, and faith. "Now I see that fact and fiction are the inseparable Siamese twins of reality and everything we think we know for sure," writes Schoemperlen. "It seems to me now that the stories of the Marian apparitions are in fact prayers, precious gifts, innocent truths" that are, as Werner Heisenberg said of the probability wave, "standing in the middle between possibility and reality." It is in that still point, that point vierge, between fact and fiction that faith not only survives but thrives.
Isn't it just delightful to see an artist produce something you never could have thought possible? Especially when it is done with such artful ease that it looks perfectly natural. The sheer wonder of it is inspirational, like a small manifestation of divine creativity in our tired old world.
Diane Schoemperlen has a very fine mind and she couples it with a pellucid writing style that manages to be both classical and modern. She is cool and intellectual but not unfeeling or manipulative. As a reader, you feel included in her thinking process, invited in to her mind rather than invited to admire its brilliance. This, for instance, is the way the narrator describes her own books: "My fiction is of the sort called serious (which means that although it is frequently humorous, it is not meant to be purely entertaining and it may or may not have a happy ending) or literary (which means that it is not of a genre like romance, horror, fantasy, mystery, or science fiction, and it seeks to shed some light on the larger truths of human nature and experience) or domestic (a word which means it is often about women and many of the scenes take place in kitchens, bedrooms, and shopping malls) or postmodern (a word which nobody really knows what it means)."
This is not the first book of Diane Schoemperlen's that I've read, and it won't be the last, because I am curious to know where she's going to go next in her exploration of life in the twenty-first century. Diane Schoemperlen's stories defy expectation, the wide-ranging understanding she conveys is provocative, and her writing style is a model of unforced simplicity. Our Lady of the Lost and Found may not be devotional enough to satisfy the practicing Christian or secular enough to satisfy the non-believer, but it has a lot to say to those who find themselves uncomfortably (or comfortably) in between. ò
Nikki Abraham is an artist and freelance writer who lives in Toronto.