The Garneau Block

by Todd Babiak
401 pages,
ISBN: 0771009887

A Stone in My Pocket

by Matthew Manera
297 pages,
ISBN: 1897235038

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Review of A Stone in My Pocket
by Nancy Wigston

A Stone in My Pocket by Matthew Manera (Thistledown Press, 297 pages, $19.95 paper, ISBN: 1897235038). Gretchen Williamson, a teenaged girl in colonial Canada, is enduring a turbulent adolescence near Port Credit, Ontario, in the 1850s. This narrative seems aimed at rewriting male-dominated history by portraying a young woman of independent spirit, caught between her sensitivity to the world she encounters on her wanderings and a strangely controlling father.
She first befriends an Ojibwa sage who teaches her "to smell storms before they came." Next comes Patrick, a young Irish stone hooker (his trade involves "hooking" stones from the riverbed). He introduces her to "The Red", an Irishwoman who utters cryptic messages. Then a schoolteacher offers a more independent role model than her own mother can. Gretchen's is an odd family: her middle sister is a violin-playing mute who believes that a heron has stolen her voice, and her father cracks up over her friendship with the Ojibwa. Gretchen leaves school to take a job typesetting and writing stories for the local newspaper, as modernity enters her community.
Manera peels back layers to remind us of a landscape where, in precolonial times, salmon spawned on the Credit River. Appropriately, the novel's strength lies less in the sometimes clichTd characters (uptight dad, wise native, Irish soothsayer) than in Manera's gift for lyricism. Puzzled by the grim sermons given in church, Gretchen is given to epiphanies when she senses the interconnectedness of all things. Writing in the sand by the river, she achieves this zen-like state: "In the cloud-coloured sand of the moist beach: Tell me everything you know and I will tell you everything I don't know. Tell my stick to say something to my hand. This sand is real. This stick is real. The sand and the stick are imagining me." New Age meets old history in the suburban sprawl we now know as Mississauga.
The Garneau Block by Todd Babiak (McClelland & Stewart, 401pages, $32.99, cloth, ISBN: 0771009887). This witty and endearing love letter is delivered tołof all placesłthe city of Edmonton and a fictional cul-de-sac, the Garneau Block. Already rocked by a recent domestic murder, residents next discover that the expanding university intends to buy and knock down all their houses. Babiak paints his characters with a light touch: the pregnant Madison Weiss, idling away in her parents' basement, wasting her M.A. in comparative literature while working at a travel agency; her good friend, the funny and popular actor, Jonas Pond, watching his hopes for success in life and love recede; Raymond Terletsky, a philosophy professor who studies death, disturbed by midlife urges that cost him his job and his wife, Shirley Wong; Madison's parents, David and Abby, whose opposing political views make for a continuous, lively dialogue that fails to derail their long and loving marriage.
One morning Garneau Block dwellers awake to signs taped to all the trees reading, "LET'S FIX IT." The signs and their author, a handsome Punjabi-Canadian who has lived among them for years but refused to mingle, get the action rolling as the neighbours come together to fight the university. Wealthy, well-travelled Rajinder dismisses the self-hating malaise that afflicts his new pal Jonas: "You have the foundation of Canadian inferiority reinforced with Edmonton inferiority, a species of inferiority that insinuated itself after Wayne Gretzky moved to Los Angeles. Yes?" Yes. And that's so yesterday, as Babiak cleverly demonstrates.
The book's charm lies in its wry satire. Quirky Madison, in the throes of a glorious new romance, still has the smarts to know that much is wrong in her world, to wit: "Money, air quality, Down Syndrome, drinking and driving, nuclear proliferation, global poverty, new country music, climate change, semi-automatic weapons, fundamentalism, declining oil reserves, cancer, crime, crack cocaine, reality television, being forced out of your house, veterinary medicine." On the other hand, there is her lover's soft skin, her doting parents, her somersaulting fetus, and the gush of spring after crisp winter days. Babiak's pages capture our stubborn addiction to happy endings, while skewering our weaknesses.

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