The Wrong Madonna

by Britt Holstrom
399 pages,
ISBN: 1896951368

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Thirty Years of Wondering
by Irene D'Souza

Britt Holmstrom's career as an English-language writer has come together slowly. This transplanted Swede turned Canadian, with roots in both England and Spain, has an educational background that includes degrees in visual arts and fashion design. Throw in a M.Sc in microbiology and one understands and appreciates the stimulating prose that challenges both the left and right brain cells. Now, in her fifties, the Regina-based flower child's second English novel, The Wrong Madonna, is inspired by Bosch's triptych 'The Last Judgement', which figures prominently in the story, prophesying the cold indifference of cruelty.

Holmstrom's narrative turns on threes: the story follows the heroine through three decades, from London's swinging sixties, through the gruesome Balkan wars, to the calm, but sterile life of suburban Canada of the 90s. She deftly weaves recurring motifs into the work, especially the nurturing and growing of gardens. Here the garden is a chimeric Island signifying that happiness and joy are almost within reach; nature's beauty, fragrances and its psychedelic colours are recurring elements. But life is otherwise hard. "The Last Judgement" is always looming, reminding us that life is dichotomized into good and evil. One is aware that happiness is illusory, and that only careful weeding, pruning and planting allows us to grasp moments of joy. "Here existed a world where beauty was actually attainable and where soil and soul need not lie barren."

Holmstrom casts her mysterious spell in a prologue; the setting is Zagreb, Yugoslavia, in the spring of 1965. "Such splendor could easily fool a visitor, especially a nanve one into thinking that this was a fortification that sheltered some fabled palace in a garden lush with rare flowers. There was no palace, Mirogoj was a place for the dead." Lisa Grankvist, an outsider, in a faraway country sits on a three-legged stool and drizzles on an unnamed infant's face with her tears, delivering an ironic unplanned baptism, in a place filled with statues of the Madonna and child, a day before Easter Sunday¨the Resurrection. The stillness of the scene is abruptly shattered when the young woman cries "Oh, Child. You picked the wrong Madonna." A mysterious event follows.

This mystery is fleshed out over three decades, and although the foreshadowing can be heavy-handed at times, Holmstrom is in control of her story. It ends with Grankvist returning to her childhood home in Sweden; mere Lutheran mortals who never went to church can also be resurrected!

The mysterious unnamed child, we deduce, is what this initially demanding but ultimately powerful novel is about. The narrative takes Lisa to London, and it is her movements that structure this multifaceted story. We pick up her history from her memories. Lisa and her artistically inclined father lived in a fantasy world in order to overcome the misery of home life. Mother was mentally ill. Father died before Lisa's twelfth birthday, causing her to question the existence of a forgiving and loving God. These glimpses of the past soon make it clear that Lisa has had a horrible childhood, lined with bitterness and the pain of not belonging. Her sense of stability is uncertain, and one empathizes with her need to flee to the anonymous but carefree, guiltless London of the sixties. The journey is a familiar one, but Holmstorm fleshes out her characters and settings with vigilance for detail, so her characters seem real, observed, rather than simply invented.

The best fiction delivers social analysis through the lives of imaginary characters, with the historical interspersed, enabling the reader to feel the texture of the events, and to believe in them. In The Wrong Madonna, the sixties era is breathtakingly evoked. Holmstorm's renderings of time, place and the evolving culture are superb, and the language is elegant and starkly beautiful. "Everybody had expected the Love Generation, gentle and sweet as it was, to dance forever on the dirty sidewalks leading towards new sensations. Seeking yet farther-out music, drugs more mind-blowing than the stuff of the night before, secure in the knowledge that this brilliant generation had found Truth in all its elegant simplicity and hung it around its neck among the cheap Moroccan beads."

Lisa and her trinity of friends¨Mimmi, Sonja and Pru journey into the seventies with some trepidation. Although Lisa still carries emotional baggage, remnants of the male trinity in her life, she sleepwalks out of the sixties and into the seventies. Weighed down by her guilt-full secret, Lisa does not pursue romantic fulfillment with the love of her life, settles only for a one-night-stand, convinced she is not worthy of loving or being loved. Instead, she marries a Canadian, moves to Hamilton, and learns to make egg salad with little green onions. She settles for fake, veneered furniture, and learns to socialize in basement wreck rooms.

Without a trace of sentimentality and with a wicked sense of humour that laces her sentences, Holmstrom lures her reader to a lush and exotic garden. By incorporating the peace and love mantra of the sixties, mantra whose power we now recognize as illusory, with the demonic madness which overcame the Balkans in the later part of the past century, her tribute to Bosch's paintings and his visual symbols of hell is powerfully delivered. Holmstrom has planted a veritable garden of delights; most impressive are the nuanced botanical metaphors planted throughout the text. That Lisa is able to cultivate throngs of blooms of overpowering beauty from barren soil carries resonance both poignant and full of wit. A promenade through this garden, replete with profound psychological insight and beautifully rendered characters, is worth the price of admission. ˛


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