Post Your Opinion
Brief Reviews
by Keith Nickson

Sharon Butala has published a steady stream of stories and novels since 1986 when her very first collection, Queen of the Headaches, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award. She was a serious, mid-list writer with a modest profile outside of Saskatchewan until she broke out with an award-winning, non-fiction bestseller, The Perfection of the Morning-the kind of spiritual book that gave the term, "new age", a modicum of respect. In her fiction and non-fiction, Butala masterfully evokes prairie landscapes: her vivid descriptions of coulees, prairie grasses, falling-down barns, and rotting fence posts know few equals.

In The Garden of Eden (HarperFlamingo Canada, 384 pages, $29 cloth), nominated for the 1998 Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award and the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction, Butala broadens her scope to wrestle with large themes of sin and redemption in an at times melodramatic story set in Saskatchewan and Ethiopia. Iris Christie is a well-off farm wife living in the prairie town of Chinook. Childless, she and her husband, Barney, raise her niece, Lannie, a troubled kid who first drifts to Toronto and then decamps to work in Ethiopia during the famine of 1985. Iris hasn't heard from Lannie for several years and her happy marriage is about to end. Barney has moved to a distant ranch, having finally grown impatient with lucrative wheat farming. When Iris finds Barney's corpse in the ranch house, she is jolted out of her comfortable life and sets out to find Lannie and share the news. Vulnerable but determined, Iris arrives in Ethiopia and her awakening and transformation from complacent farm wife to self-aware woman begin.

For the most part, Butala's characters are well-drawn figures who exude the rough edges of real life. One exception is the young, handsome novelist, Jay Anselm, who, in a rather hackneyed sex scene, eventually beds Iris in a Toronto hotel room and leaves before she wakes up. More seriously, though, Butala loads her story with some symbolism that can be heavy-handed, even for an increasingly spiritual writer. Along with the title's explicit invocation of paradise are a trinity of sections entitled "Seeding", "Growing", and "Harvesting", and chapters such as "The Promise of Heaven", "Loaves and Fishes", and "The Underworld". And her use of richly symbolic dreams to represent Iris's burgeoning inner life read, on occasion, like warmed-over Freudian narratives-just plain "corny" in the parlance of John Barth. In Writers Dreaming, the 1993 book edited by Naomi Epel, Barth advises his creative writing students either to not "do dreams" or, if they do, then only with "ironic awareness that dreams have been overdone". Butala fails on both counts. After setting out to find Lannie, for example, Iris dreams of a snake shedding its skin in a tropical Garden of Eden, which of course symbolizes her gaining an awareness of a new dimension of the world-"whole, perfect, transcendentally beautiful."

The Garden of Eden is an ambitious book marred by blatant signposting and earnest dream sequences. I suspect that readers would prefer to discover their own patterns of meaning in Butala's narratives. 

Keith Nickson teaches English at George Brown College in Toronto.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us