Sunnybrook: A True Story with Lies, by Persimmon Blackridge (Press Gang, 96 pages, $23.95 cloth-with full-colour images throughout), is an unusual novel in that it started out as visual art. Blackridge, who lives in Vancouver and is described on the dust-jacket as a "learning-disabled-lesbian-cleaning-lady-sculptor-performer-video-artist", originally created the artwork reproduced with the text for an exhibition. The fully developed story in words came later.
The story is a simple one. The narrator, Diane (Persimmon to her friends), fakes her way into a counselling job at the Sunnybrook Institution for the Mentally Handicapped. Diane, being learning-disabled herself, finds herself relating more to the patients than to her employers. Away from work, Diane hangs out at Sappho's, a lesbian bar where she hooks up with Shirley-Butch, who herself was once institutionalized. Shirley-Butch eventually forces Diane to choose which side of the fence she wants to live on, the patients' or the staff's, thereby also forcing Diane to confront her own identity crisis, her shame at being learning-disabled.
The book is written in very short chapters-about a page each-and the artwork complements the text. (The designer, Val Speidel, is to be commended for her role in achieving this.) But it is the sidebars that appear on almost every page that provide the real kick: the narrator deflating the pompousness of the narrator, as it were. The events take place in 1975, but the sidebar comments are Diane's present observations: wry, witty, self-depreciating, ironic. Without them, the book wouldn't seem as funny-or as sincere.