Margery Looks Up

by Meredith Andrew
160 pages,
ISBN: 1551281015

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Brief Reviews
by Malca Litovitz

The heroine of Toronto writer Meredith Andrew's second novel is an idealist who studies philosophy at the University of Toronto. There are references to Innis College, High Park, the Robarts Library, and other local landmarks, but the development is internal and has more to do with a landscape of feeling, mood and affections. Margery meets her first boyfriend, Tom, in an ethics class. It is her hope to raise their bond to a soul connection. She wants them to fuse on a "cellular level" and to give birth to some third entity that is neither he nor she but a shared being, conceived of their attachment. Instead, Tom betrays her and explains his motives: "Having sex with you is as much fun as having sex with an effigy. A fucking stone effigy in some fucking stone church." Before he breaks off their relationship and leaves her, he tells Margery about a convent in the fittingly named French town of SauvT. It is at this point that the spiritual drive takes a completely different direction¨through questioning, suffering, and a journey.
Margery sets off on her quest for salvation, searching for external support from the Christian monastic structure, but suffers a traumatic ordeal. Instead of peace and escape from her inner feelings of emptiness, she suffers greater torment, which renders her a "null set", and reduces her to a sense of her own nothingness. Out of this despair, Margery will have to fashion a viable self. In the end, that fragile self will learn to take sustenance neither from human relationship nor the sacraments of the Catholic religion but from ordinary service to her fellow human beings, and by arriving at answers after relentless searching and questioning.
Fortunately, Margery has a couple of good friends, Alice and Peter, who genuinely care for her. They introduce her to Frank, an astronomer, who, like Margery, enjoys gazing at the stars. Frank becomes her "devotee". At first, Margery will have nothing to do with him, and continues to lead her marginal life. She walks dogs in High Park for a living, drops out of school without completing her degree, and develops an odd self-destructive habit: she plucks out her brown hairs, one by one, vowing to continue until only grey hairs are left. Margery looks up: to the stars, to the saints, and to a malevolent and distant god, an Old Man who haunts her until close to the novel's conclusion.
For Margery, redemption is to be achieved partly through writing. Margery uses a device reminiscent of Augustine who in his "Confessions" talked to the reader by means of a conversation with God. Here, however, our heroine, an avowed atheist, is talking simply to us:
"To me, you are next to nothing. I do not bless you and I do not damn you. You are nothing to me but the air that receives my exhalations, the basin into which I spew my noxious fluids, a niche to hold my hallowed image, an ear all disembodied."

Writing is finally redemptive, a cleansing release¨not unlike psychotherapy: one expels the poisonous parts of one's past and liberates oneself in the process.
Despite the daunting religious subject matter, the novel is more often than not comical and tongue-in-cheek. Meredith Andrew's heroine is depicted as struggling to tell her story, a narrative technique that lends the novel considerable depth.
"And already my story becomes more than I can bear. Too soon, hardly into it, not yet even on the same side of the sea as the Old Man, I feel a choking, a gagging, a turning of the brain¨a reluctance to go on."

Margery parallels her story and those of her friends with stories of the saints: Ursula, Bernadette, Agnes, and others. She tells us that she has, in fact, been made saintly through her suffering. She has stigmata on her hands and feet, a habit of self-flagellation, a gift for rescuing others that she denies, and a tendency to gaze at the stars. She sees her own journey as a quest. Fortunately for her readers, Margery conquers her demons, learns self-acceptance, and thereby completes her quest.
This contemporary religious novel explores how one woman reacts to suffering. It uses Catholic notions of sainthood as the backdrop to a quest that has a literary dimension. ˛

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