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Claire's Head

by Catherine Bush
ISBN: 0771017529


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A Review of: Claire∆s Head
by Lisa Salem-Wiseman

Among Canada's emerging generation of novelists, Catherine Bush has established a reputation for honestly and intelligently conveying the reactions of young, modern, urban women to the fragmentation and disintegration of the structures on which they rely to give their lives meaning. Bush's first novel, Minus Time, traced the attempts of Helen Urie, whose mother is circling the earth in a space station and whose father is traveling the world saving people from disasters, to adjust to the lack of connection with her family members and the ensuing loss of meaning in a world in which appearances and spectacle have supplanted reality. Seven years after the first book, which was shortlisted for both the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the City of Toronto Book Award, Bush published The Rules of Engagement. Arcadia Hearne, the protagonist of her second novel, is attempting to forget a violent incident in her past by immersing herself in her work as a researcher in the area of contemporary war studies and military intervention. Like Helen, she is the daughter of scientists and, also like Helen, she is encouraged to adopt a more intellectual stance toward the chaos, fragmentation, and danger of the contemporary world, including her own personal experience.
Four years later, Bush has published her third novel, Claire's Head, and if she is returning to familiar thematic territory, she is also adding a more personal element to the story: While Bush is not (like Helen) the daughter of an astronaut, and while she did not (like Arcadia) inspire a duel in a Toronto ravine, she does indeed suffer from migraines. Claire's Head follows the journey of Claire Barber, a migraine sufferer, as she travels from Toronto to Montreal, Amsterdam, Italy, Las Vegas, and finally to Mexico, in search of her similarly afflicted sister Rachel, who has suddenly disappeared, perhaps in search of a cure. Although Claire-or rather, her head-is the title character of this novel, Rachel-or rather, the absence of Rachel-is at its centre. As in her previous novels, in which the sibling relationship becomes a catalyst for a re-evaluation of self, Claire's attempt to find Rachel necessitates "a leap into disorder," a monumental step for the cerebral, organized cartographer, who was drawn to her profession by a need "to bring a little more clarity and form to the chaotic world." Deprived of maps or itineraries, Rachel and her former lover Brad lurch from one possible location to another, following rumours and hunches. Eventually they land in Las Vegas, where the absence of clocks signal their disconnection from the temporally ordered world. Claire, driven by a "desire to measure things, trying to keep the world's wildness at bay," may finally have to surrender to the forces of entropic disorder.
Much has been written of this novel's depiction of the intense pain felt by migraine sufferers. On the book's jacket, Marni Jackson suggests that the novel be considered "a fictional counterpart to Oliver Sacks's classic study, Migraine." And, certainly, Bush loads the novel with enough detail about migraine pain and attempts to dealt with it to make both the fellow-sufferer and the non-sufferer exclaim-the former with recognition and the latter with horror. Both Claire and Rachel describe pain as a physical, geographical place:

"She was aware, as they drove, of her pain having contours, points of abrasion, her body collapsed into these contours, its borders contiguous with hers. What was immediately around her was incorporated into this awareness The vinyl of the seat beat beneath her legs. Her hat clutched her head. The windshield enwrapped her. The morning sunlight clamoured against the glass. Such things weren't themselves any more as much as they were aspects of what she felt, the shape of her pain. Perhaps the place of pain changed constantly. Perhaps all places were the place of pain."

Bush captures the migraine-sufferer's desperation and obsessive need for relief on every page. In an attempt to establish a relationship with pain in which she is not at its mercy, eight-year-old Claire deliberately burns the soles of her feet on the radiator in her parents' room; the adult Claire reflects that "the pain was hers She controlled when it started and when it ended, and this produced a satisfaction so deep it became exhilaration." In her journal, Rachel's repeated rubbing of the point on her forehead where the pain is concentrated wears a raw, bloody spot into the skin.
As powerful as such descriptions are, readers familiar with Bush's writing know that there must be more. Like Claire, Bush's response to the world is predominantly intellectual; Bush, who received a B.A. in comparative literature from Yale before turning to fiction, is a wonderfully cerebral writer, more concerned with ideas than with sensations and emotions. The title refers to, not only the site of Claire's migraines, but also the place Claire looks for solutions to the chaos and random pain of the contemporary world. Like the protagonists of Bush's two previous novels, Claire intellectualizes her experiences, reflecting that, as a migraine sufferer, "mapping had been a way to give the world order, to hold back the riot of sensory signals that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her, and to compensate for the disorder that, more frequently than she liked to admit, was let loose inside her." The sheer contingency of the world is made real to Claire, Rachel, and a third sister, Allison, in the form of the death of their parents through a failure of transportation technology that defies all statistical odds.
Appropriately, Bush moves the focus from the pain itself to the elaborate efforts of Claire and Rachel to "map," control, or understand their pain. When Claire was younger, "she had no senseof warning signals. Nor was she able to attribute the migraines to any obvious causeNo one had yet used the word migraine' around her." As an adult, she, like Rachel, is obsessive about triggers-the environmental, emotional or physiological stimuli that bring on or worsen a migraine. Rachel keeps a journal in which she tracks both her pain and her attempts to control it; its pages include lists of famous migraine sufferers (including Kant, Freud, Nietzsche, Chopin, and Woolf), things to avoid (including sugar, dairy, perfume, newspaper ink, and carpets), and the medications she is taking. The documentation itself is an attempt at control; at one point she admits the futility of the exercise, declaring that "[t]here's no use keeping a headache diary, expecting it to reveal patterns of cause and effect." Abandoning any attempt to exert control over what the novel calls "the hurly-burly of the world" through the examination of patterns and statistics, Rachel eventually surrenders to the randomness of her pain, embarking on a search for relief in unconventional places.
While Claire's Head successfully engages the reader in the life and suffering of its young protagonist, it is most successful as a study of the futility of the quest to find order and meaningful connections in a contemporary, urban world "ruled by randomness." In this novel, Bush has given readers what is not only a heartfelt depiction of pain to appeal to anyone who experiences migraines, but also a thought-provoking read for anyone who, like Claire, uses their head.
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