Fall on Your Knees

by Ann-Marie MacDonald,
566 pages,
ISBN: 0394281594

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First Novels - The Knopf Four
by Eva Tihanyi

Fall on Your Knees is equally ambitious and inclusive of diversity. MacDonald, an award-winning actress and playwright, has created an extraordinary family saga of gothic proportions. Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, the story unfolds mainly on a mythically charged Cape Breton Island but takes us also to New York City in the Roaring Twenties, humming with its emerging jazz scene and energizing licentiousness.

The Pipers are a dark but spellbinding clan. James, the ambitious patriarch, begins as a piano tuner but ends up wealthy through bootlegging. He marries the thirteen-year-old Materia Mahmoud when he is eighteen; her Lebanese family disowns her. Four daughters complete the immediate family picture. Kathleen, the aspiring opera diva, whose death at nineteen plays a pivotal role in the family drama, is beautiful and talented-Daddy's favourite. Frances, who learns early that "one thing can look like another" and that "the facts of a situation don't necessarily indicate the truth of a situation," assumes the role of the rebellious bad girl intent on exhuming the family's secrets. Mercedes, a year older than Frances, takes on the responsibility of ensuring that the family survives. She serves, nurtures, and protects, turns to Catholicism for solace. And finally, there is Lily, the youngest, an invalid beloved by all, who must in the end come to terms with the family tree, its buried roots, its startling branches.

There is much I could say about what happens in the novel, but that would be a great disservice to MacDonald's expert plotting. She keeps you reading, not with gimmicks but with gripping, unforgettable characters so archetypally resonant, so realistically evoked, that they live themselves right off the page. The ending-though unexpected-is perfectly fitting and entirely appropriate. MacDonald has succeeded in delivering a surprise that really isn't one-no small feat.


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