There is a true sense of "wordscaping" in all of Jan Andrews's books: words and language reflect and grow out of the landscape in her work. Where Pumpkin Time
is playful with "a pumpkinny-mummish kind of music", and where the lushness of the language in Very Last First Time
expresses the lushness of Ungava Bay in an underwater landscape where "seaweed was piled in thick, wet, shiny heaps and masses," Keri
's landscape is harsh, spare, and tough, and the novel's prose echoes this ruggedness.
Firmly grounded in a once thriving Newfound-land fishing community, the story is one of survival: of struggling to survive, of insisting upon it. Keri's father has had to go "away" to a job based out of St. John's in order to support his family. This leaves an angry and resentful thirteen-year-old Keri at home with her younger brother, Grae, and their mother. Andrews has a knack for making the anger and resentment real and honest; these emotions spark through the novel, giving it its driving force.
The novel's plot focuses on Keri's and her brother's desperate attempt to save a whale they discover beached in their cove. Over the course of about twelve hours from early morning until after dark, Keri and Grae face desperation, fear, helplessness, and exhaustion in their struggle to push the whale back into the water with the outgoing tide.
As a story-teller, Andrews is adept at weaving past and present; inside Keri's story there is another: the story of her ancestor, a young Irishwoman abandoned and alone in the same cove more than two hundred years ago. Inspired by a whalebone handed down woman to woman through the generations and by her grandmother's stories, Keri makes her own pictures, creates her own stories that reflect her life, her feelings, her responses. Rather than overdoing it and turning us off by appearing corny or hokey, Andrews uses these flashes of images from the past to reinforce the desperation and exhaustion that begin to overcome Keri, and to give her the courage and strength to go on.
In creating a connection with the women of Keri's past through the deserted young Irishwoman and Keri's grandmother and her stories, Andrews creates a way for Keri to begin to recognize her mother's struggle. The tension between her mother and her is a constant force that flickers and flares throughout this novel. Andrews's no-nonsense dialogue is realistic and yet poignant, as Keri and her mother begin to understand each other.
Keri is Andrews's first novel and proves her capable of taking us to the furthest edge of a landscape and pulling us into her story. Oh, and you might want to wear some serious waterproof clothing when you read this book: the intensity of her writing is real enough to get you good and wet when you plunge into the water with Keri and Grae.
Julie Bergwerff lives near Keene, Ont.