Graven Images

by Audrey Thomas,
ISBN: 0140174729

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Mistress of Tart Remarks
by Elisabeth Harvor

IN Terrorists and Novelists, the critic Diane Johnson, writing about Charlotte Bronte, describes her as a writer who had the "artistic daring to risk heroines so deviant as to be plain." These words came back to me as I was reading Graven Images, Audrey Thomas's new novel; they recalled an early Thomas story, "A Winter's Tale," whose subject is a "plain" girl who's an exchange student in the 1950s in Scotland. That early story, once you get past its didactic opening paragraph, seems to me to be one of the most undervalued stories in the whole Canadian canon. The dialogue between its two clever and lonely undergraduates (who are trying to use an undergraduate chat about God as a lever to help them go to bed together) is startlingly emotional and electric. And there's no special pleading on behalf of the young narrator, but instead a rueful self-knowledge in a not-rueful-enough decade.

Graven Images lacks that earlier story's nerve and candour. A history of the encounters and recollections of two women in mid-life who are in search of their ancestors, it contains (in excess) letters, poem-fragments, dictionary entries, parodies of carols, and so many other bits and pieces that it feels not written but collected. Of course it could be argued that all of these bits of exotica, so postmodernly laid out for the reader, are there to do the job of supplying, via style, a subtext for a novel that is really about collecting -collecting in the usual sense, and also in the sense that memory and family history are "about" collecting. But in order for all this haphazardness to ignite, it has to be powered by a kind of idiosyncratic searchingness, it has to have real feelings woven into the narrative disarray, otherwise it will tend to feel schematic, not inspired.

A travel writer who's beginning to tire of travel, Charlotte (Harlotte to her friends) hopes to write a novel, and Thomas's own gifts as a travel writer work quite well to set the scenes through which Charlotte makes her way. Odd bits of social history are presented in transit - the information that Handel directed a performance of The Messiah at the London Hospital for Foundlings, for instance, along with the news that Hogarth designed the uniforms for the foundling children. There are also a number of luridly vivid Thomasian touches, such as this comment on Charlotte's mother's apartment: "The vacuum stands in the comer like some strange life-support system." Or this, on blood puddings: "They sound like something made from leftover placentas."

But the overall effect is not nearly so economical and lethal as this; the book instead feels bloated. I often felt as if I'd been cornered by a witty but compulsive talker - I soon got bored by all the anecdotes and cheerful historical instruction and began to feel a hunger for event, for sadness, for moments of real quiet, for the novelist's imagined "real life." But instead of drama there tended to be melodrama (not a fair substitute) and - along with the earlier-mentioned collectibles - lists and old campfire songs and jokes.

Thomas is not often a very introspective writer. She instead reserves her love for the surface of life and for the thousands of details that make up the surface; she doesn't care to go deep, preferring instead to get just under the skin - sometimes with eerie precision, as in the wonderfully evoked haut monde of horsy Copenhagen in an earlier story called "Breeders." But this preference for the surface has a tendency to make Graven Images seem somewhat trivial. And on the few occasions when Charlotte edges toward real feelings, she seems only to test the waters, then to deny that she felt what she felt.

The chunky shadow of the traveller's notebook falls across the novel as well, and it's also clear that Thomas often can't resist the temptation to collage even this fractured material, jazz it up. I kept missing the emotional and artistic daring of that earlier Thomas. It's possible, though, that some readers will be charmed by Graven Images's travel-writer-wanting-to-become-novelist narrator, she's such a chatty and energetic mistress of tart remarks.


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