A few years back, the novelist Nicholas Mosley resigned in protest from the jury for the Booker Prize. Why? Because the eligible novels contained no ideas, and he saw that absence as a fatal flaw. I thought of him as I read The Ancestral Suitcase; I wonder what he would make of it.
For this book teems with ideas: ideas about time and inherited memory, about evil and creativity, nature versus culture, body versus spirit. But they are ideas of a particular stamp. They are precisely what you might expect from the author of Quest for the Fourth Monkey (originally called The Book of Strange), subtitled A Thinker's Guide to the Psychic and Spiritual Revolution. We're talking New Age here. Fraser's beliefs are often vague, but they depend upon the existence of the perfect God for the 1990s: not necessarily omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, but heavily into recycling.
Moreover, the book falls into a category that rarely makes the Booker short list. The Ancestral Suitcase is genre fiction: its ideas come in a package that is pure Harlequin romance. At one point, I thought I could pinpoint its genre even more precisely, as a Contemporary Reincarnation Romance. Wrong. The Ancestral Suitcase would fall under the heading-if there were one-of Contemporary Gothic Time Travel Romance.
The novel opens in the childhood home of Nora Locke (most names in Staircase totter from their burden of meaning), a professor of English literature at the University of Western Ontario. She has returned to Hamilton, her home town, because her mother has just died. She's heading off to the Midlands almost at once, to finish the research for her article "The Impact of Socioeconomic Condition in the Work of D. H. Lawrence". She is virtually a parody of that stereotype of modern fiction, the scholarly, unsensual woman, living largely through books.
But her identity is also firmly rooted in the romance tradition, several rungs down the ladder of cultural respectability from the heroines of Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Barbara Pym. Except for her age (too old at thirty-eight), Nora is the perfect heroine for a Gothic romance. She is alone, she is plucky, and she is haunted by mysterious ailments and shadowy memories. Above all, she has the perversity the genre demands. She displays the reckless curiosity, the maddening innocence, and the ill-timed passivity that infects all romance heroines. She can be counted on to push ahead-alone, into a lightless cave, for instance-when any sane person would run. Yet paralysis sets in the instant a villainous man lays a hand on her.
The combination of New Age ideas and Harlequin conventions makes for a disturbing hybrid. Take the issue of time travel. Nora sets off for England after a fall, clutching what she believes to be her new suitcase. Arriving in Barrow, the Nottinghamshire village her grandmother left in 1913, she checks into a shabby hotel called the Wolfe Inn Moon. She awakens the next morning in pre-World War I Barrow.
Now, Nora has already learned that her new suitcase is an impostor-she's brought its doppelganger, the old ancestral suitcase her grandmother carried to Canada. Nora suspects the twin suitcases, old and new, might somehow be responsible for producing "a space-time anomaly creating a portal into the past." She muses: "Perhaps linear time was just an illusion, as Plato and Einstein had opined, with so-called moments coexisting like cells in a honeycomb. If this landscape possessed a reality outside her own head, had she stumbled down a black hole, bumbled through a time warp, slid along a wormhole into a parallel universe?"
Maybe-but that parallel universe embodies some of the most banal conventions of historical romance fiction. The novel is fixated, for instance, on clothes. In 1913 Barrow, Nora finds her 1990s wardrobe reappearing in her hotel bedroom, but strangely transmogrified. Her short skirts are longer; her necklines are higher; zippers and Velcro have turned to hooks and buttons and laces. Some supernatural alterationist provides suitable disguises, allowing her to poke about in her own genetic history. Perhaps there's some deep layer of meaning that I missed, but Nora's hobble skirts and corsets reminded me of the way that Georgette Heyer, queen of the Regency romance, goes on about pelisses.
Similarly, many of the characters have been plucked straight from the Gothic version of Central Casting. There is Eleanora, the ripe child-of-nature maid, and her sister Flame (that's right, Flame), the red-headed vixen and budding suffragette. There is a good man, a widowed newspaper publisher, and a bad dark one, the hotel's owner. His name is Nicholas Wolfe-the surname a giveaway-and his eyes, Fraser tells us, burn "topaz, almost yellow." (Presumably Nora has been too busy studying Sons and Lovers to have encountered Rosemary's Baby, or she'd know that those jaundiced eyes can only mean trouble.)
Now, Fraser is not a sophisticated writer. She is deliberately playing with the conventions of Gothic romance. Look at her images. It's true that she writes of "cindery clouds" scudding "like a wolf pack across the moon, devouring its face." But she also describes "the moon, hanging like a poached egg in the sky," and sheep "like mashed potatoes on a bed of parsley, just asking to be eaten" (italics Fraser's). Nobody comes up with that combination of Daphne Du Maurier and
P. G. Wodehouse by accident.
Fraser even toys with what I think of as the Dallas trick; at one point it seems possible that Nora's time travel is a concussion-fuelled dream. The novelist knows there's a comic side to New Age thought. A puzzled Nora asks herself: "If she was lost in the twilight zone between death and waking, where was the celestial guide with archangel's wings whose job it was to judge her life and help her sort her options?" Listening to her airplane seat neighbour expound on genetic memory, she wonders, "Is everyone flying New Age?"
The problem lies in the Serious Messages that underlie the trickery and games. Fraser asks: "Since our genes pass on learned biological information, who's to say they don't pass on personal experience as well? Who indeed? But I'd want mine to pass on something more interesting than Nora's inheritance. She is sent hurtling back in time, as far as I can make out, to discover the truth about a murder and her own origins. More important, she learns that "each of us was born into this world carrying a suitcase containing records of the lives we had already led, echoing back millions of years."
Nora's other messages come straight from D. H. Lawrence, though they're not the Lady Chatterley nonsense usually associated with him. Fraser disposes of that briskly after Nora's first tryst with Nicholas Wolfe: "What had she expected-one of Lady Chatterley's erotic epiphanies? She realized that she had. While her mind had rejected Lawrence's phallic worship, some errant part of her psyche had clung to that fantasy of the rescuing `other' like her mother soaking up Harlequin romances."
Fraser borrows some of the more complex ideas of Women in Love and Lawrence's essay "The Crown". (Lawrence himself must have pinched some of them from Hindu theology, at least the ones about coexistence of creation and destruction.) Fraser writes of Nora: "She'd scarcely thought of her ancestral roots in the Midlands or...-the personal significance of Lawrence's theme of body versus mind, flesh versus spirit, instinct versus intellect, the natural versus the cultivated. In fact, she'd resisted this sabbatical, caught up in the scholarly mind-set that preferred dead authors to living ones, and archival research to anything that confused objectivity by talking back. Perhaps fate had targeted her for a message more relevant than she'd imagined: my mind, my body...an adventure."
The adventure is not sexual, although sex plays a part in the book. It is instead the exploration of a Mystery (Fraser's capital), to discover that life has a Meaning or Purpose (ditto). Now, that ought to be more than an adequate message for a Gothic romance. Susanna Kearsley's Mariana won the Catherine Cookson Fiction Award (the Booker of Historical Romance) and its message boils down to the adage, don't judge a book by its cover.
But the New Age wisdom of The Ancestral Suitcase doesn't feel as if it's enough, and you don't have to be Nancy Drew to figure out why not. Yes, we do tote around ancestral suitcases, but I think we carry them in our psyches, not our genes. And how they cling! Nora sees Wolfe's penis as "a poisoned toadstool". She used an almost identical phrase in her autobiographical book, In My Father's House: A Memoir of Incest and of Healing. No wonder: Fraser's history as an abuse victim hovers over the new novel. Nora's passivity in the face of Wolfe's lust makes far more sense in an incest survivor than a time traveller. The Ancestral Suitcase hums with the memory of an ancestral crime far more resonant and moving than any Gothic melodrama of murder and revenge.
Suanne Kelman teaches broadcast journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University, and is writing a book about the history of the family.