The Divine Economy of Salvation

by Priscila Uppal
405 pages,
ISBN: 0385658044


by Christy Ann Conlin
322 pages,
ISBN: 0385658079

Spelling Mississippi

by Marnie Woodrow
386 pages,
ISBN: 0676974317

Rush Home Road

by Lori Lansens
547 pages,
ISBN: 0676974503

Crow Lake

by Mary Lawson
291 pages,
ISBN: 0676974791

The Heart Does Not Bend

by Makeda Silvera
264 pages,
ISBN: 0679311343

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First Novels
by W.P Kinsella

The first book I read for the 2002 season, Crow Lake, by Mary Lawson, (Knopf Canada, 294pages, ISBN: 0676974791), is a spellbinding story and likely to be collecting accolades at the end of the year. The bitter land and climate of Northern Ontario are like characters in this story of four orphaned children struggling to stay together as a family. After the death of their parents in a car accident, teenagers Luke and Matt refuse to let their little sisters Kate and Bo be shunted off to even less prosperous relatives in Quebec. At great cost to themselves they keep the family together even though the savage quarrels between them sometimes turn violent. Luke gives up a teaching career so that the brilliant Matt may go to college. However, Matt gets a neighbor girl pregnant. The story is narrated by the adult Kate who is still grieving the loss of her parents. She is the one with a degree in zoology and a teaching job at a university, but she feels guilty about her brothers sacrificing their chances at a better life and can't bring herself to return to Crow Lake, or to discuss the past with her brothers. The language is subtle but beautiful. The reader is drawn into the lives of the characters and more than once I wanted to reach into the novel, shake a character and say, "Don't do that, you're going to ruin your life." Or, "Open up. Talk to someone. Share your feelings." A marvelous story, foreign rights have been sold world wide, and the prospects for success are endless.

The Heart Does Not Bend, by Makeda Silvera (Random House Canada, 264pages, $32.95, ISBN: 0679311343), has a spectacular jacket designed by CS Richardson. It opens with the reading of Maria Galloway's will. The powerful and domineering matriarch of a sprawling Jamaican family takes a final swipe at her relatives, just to show she can be as bossy and manipulative in death as she was in life, when she leaves her considerable inherited property to her worthless and sociopathic grandson. The story is narrated by a granddaughter, Molly, who was raised by her grandmother in Jamaica, then moved with her to Toronto. The grandmother was pregnant at 15, as was her daughter Glory, the narrator's mother. The narrator holds off to 19, but her daughter is pregnant at 14łnothing learned in four generations, and little hope of change is offered. These are not very nice people, and engender little sympathy. Silvera, a poet, knows how to use sight, sound, taste, touch and smell to create beautiful images. However, much of the dialogue is in dialect, and very difficult to understand: "Lord, how unnu can sit dere and mek de nice likkle bwoy go to government."

If there was an unappealing title contest, The Divine Economy of Salvation, by Pricilla Uppal, (Doubleday Canada, 408pages, $32.95, ISBN:0385658044), would be a finalist. In spite of another outstanding jacket designed by CS Richardson, I would never pick up a book with such a dreary title. Uppal has published three books of poetry and her expertise at placing perfect words in perfect order makes the language a pleasure to all the senses. When her mother's health fails Angela, at fourteen, is sent to a Catholic boarding school. In the past I have upbraided authors for choosing such a trite and easy setting, but there are always exceptions, and Uppal comes close to writing a successful boarding school novel. Angela and several friends form a club, unimaginatively called The Sisterhood, but there is a well defined sense of menace that keeps the reader engaged. We know something awful will happen and that a girl named Bella who desperately wants to be part of the sisterhood will be involved. Needless to say there is a tragedy and Angela, full of guilt, retreats to a religious life, returning to teach at the same school. Twenty years later, still tormented by her past, Sister Angela receives reminders of the tragic event that changed her life, and she agonizes over who is tormenting her and what will happen if she is exposed. So far so good. However, there is no climax, and the ending is quite unsatisfactory, and not very believable.

Heave, by Christy Ann Conlin, (Doubleday Canada, 322pages, $29.95, ISBN: 0385658079), is another questionable title, in that it seems to have nothing to do with the contents of the book that is adorned with yet another memorable jacket by CS Richardson. Set in rural Nova Scotia where excessive drinking and peculiar behavior is apparently the norm, Heave is the story of Seraphina Sullivan, a 20-year-old alcoholic, prone to erratic and self-destructive behavior. The opening is one of the best in recent years when, taking her girlfriend Dearie's advice, "Go tits to the wind," Seraphina bolts from the altar and runs through the countryside disgorging pieces of her wedding outfit as she does so. Her background is slowly dispensedła hardworking but depressed and resentful mother, a pleasant but totally weird father who, having given up employment years before, now collects and restores outhouses, a scholarly brother, and a couple of friends, Elizabeth and Dearie, who drink almost as much as Seraphina. The difference being that while they drink excessively because all their peers do, Serrie drinks in order to blackout. Drifting aimlessly she takes a trip to London and does some heavy drugs, continues in the same vein when she returns to Halifax and ends up in a hospital near death.
She joins AA, gets a job at a new resort where the older owner, a German immigrant, falls in love with her. It is only in the final pages that we learn what is really bothering her. While it may be legal I wonder how ethical it is for the author to withhold such vital information for so long. Still, the writing is very strong "Those days shaped our hearts, whole and strong and full of summer, a summer covering us with blossoms and breezes and stupid innocence. There would never be an autumn at all." This is a very strong debut and Seraphina is a thoroughly memorable character.

Rush Home Road, by Lori Lansens (Knopf Canada, 547pages, $34.95, ISBN: 0676974503), is a lengthy novel about suffering. A saintly old black woman, Adelaide Shadd, suffers misfortunes of Biblical proportions. Addy has lived a long life and as that life is winding down a white-trash neighbor abandons her neglected, five-year-old half-black daughter on Addy's doorstep. As Addy copes with this new responsibility she relives her life in a series of long, wordy flashbacks: her childhood in a mainly black Ontario town, a rape that results in pregnancy, a fine husband and a beautiful daughter whom she loses in a tragedy. The scenes in the present with the little girl, Sharla, are quite well handled, though Sharla too suffers in almost every possible way. Most of the flashbacks to Addy's past are heavy-handed and unnecessarily melodramatic. The editing, if there was any, is haphazard, and the book would have been stronger at 345 pages instead of 545. The author is a screenwriter and this might have been better as a screenplay where lack of finesse, and melodrama are not out of place. I can see Oprah, with a little makeup, playing Addy Shadd in a 5-hankie movie.

Spelling Mississippi, by Marnie Woodrow (Knopf Canada, 386pages, $34.95, ISBN: 0676974317), is a sweet, eccentric love story that I wished would go on forever. In the unforgettable opening, Cleo Savoy a Canadian holidaying in New Orleans, is sitting on a dark pier after midnight when a woman in an evening dress complete with a tiara runs down the pier, leaps over Cleo into the Mississippi, and disappears. Cleo runs from the scene and scans the papers for days for news of the suicide, all the time feeling guilty that she took no action. Cleo hangs around the bistros of the French quarter and eventually learns some information about the jumper. The woman, Madeline, is not dead. She was a former competitive swimmer who managed to cross the Mississippi, and it was not a suicide attempt, just frustration with her husband for forgetting her 40th birthday. Madeline and Cleo finally meet, and as each woman's story is revealed, startling parallels occur. Madeline plunging into the Mississippi brings back long-repressed memories for Cleo. Water of all kinds, from the ever present Mississippi to the major flood in Florence, Italy, in 1966, to the swimming pools of St. Louis, MO, bind the two women together. As they come to know one another this reader often wanted to leap into the story and make their lives easier. Woodrow is the author of two story collections and this novel will advance her career immeasurably. The story is original, sexy and presents an unforgettable portrait of New Orleans.

W. P. Kinsella plays in Scrabble Tournaments and reads first novels.

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