Reviews

Michael Melgaard

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Fiction Reviews

The Hunter and the Wild Girl
by Pauline Holdstock
Fredericton, NB: Gooselane, 2015
333 pp, $32.95

The Hunter and the Wild Girl has all the appearance of a fairy-tale. It is set in the French countryside in some near-distant past that has remained unaffected by the  modern world that has formed around it. It is a land of abandoned orangeries and absentee Seigneurs, where hunting and farming still provide the town’s main sustenance, and where there is little money, but no one seems poor for it. It is a place where everyone knows everyone else’s history — and each has played a part in it.

In this setting, Peyre Rouff, the Madman of Aveyrac, could easily be cast as an archetype — the fairy-tale antihero in need of redemption. He was once part of the community, but an accident takes his son’s life and leaves him to live alone with his sorrow on an abandoned estate, rejecting anyone who would help him with his sorrow. For a lesser writer, this sort of character would be nothing more than allegorical stand-in; but Pauline Holdstock does not allow him to be a mere lead in a fairy-tale; she breathes life into him. The scenes of  claustrophobic seclusion, his obsessive lists created to keep the sorrow at bay, and his empty world of taxidermied animals are all felt deeply by the reader — when Rouff’s drinking leaves him “like a marionette, abandoned,” the reader slumps in shared exhaustion.

The depth of characterization is not reserved only for the leads. Rather than cast the villagers as set dressing, secondary to the main plot, Holdstock gives them their own concerns and their own lives, without ever bogging down the book in superfluous detail. The secretly shrewd mayor, the young boy who dreams of freedom, the minor villain and coward — all these characters combine to create a tightly constructed and fully realized world.

It is into this world that the feral, wild girl crashes. She runs through the village and disappears over the edge of a ravine, instantly becoming a legend, like Rouff. So it is inevitable that she find her way to him and their lives should become intermingled. At first, he tries to civilize her, to bring her back to society. His efforts mostly fail. Though he gets her to wear clothes through bribery, her mind is too atavistic to understand why she should wear them. He tries to bring her to town for someone else to deal with, but, like the attempts to get her into clothes, he eventually sees this is a waste of time. Even if she is brought into civilization, she will never be able to adapt to it. She requires freedom; she cannot be tamed. So he begins to treat her like a stray animal; keeping her fed and watered, providing shelter as needed, but never taking away her liberty. It is the pragmatic thing to do, but it is also brings a bit of compassion into his life again — he has something to care about.

Rouff chose seclusion, in part, to avoid living in a place where everyone knew his loss, where his mourning was local gossip. By removing himself entirely, though, he unwittingly allowed gossip to become legend. The village elevated him from mourning father to madman on the hill. When the town finds out that the wild girl has joined him, the ugly side of a small community comes to the fore. Here, Holdstock’s treatment of the villagers is its strongest. They are not simply an angry, small-minded mob — Holdstock has given them all life; their thoughts of Rouff are not intentionally malicious, they have grown organically.

The wild girl is, of course, taken away to be civilized, and Rouff is forced back into the real world in an attempt to keep her free. As the book heads toward its end, the plot takes some predictable turns. This is not to denigrate the book in any way. Holdstock works within the framework of a fairy-tale, so all the moves are, naturally, familiar. The conceit of the book itself — a wild girl comes to town and redeems those that need redeeming, the minor villains receive their comeuppance, the town and everyone in it changes for the better — is equally familiar, but within it, Holdstock tells a very real, very human story of loss and suffering.

 

Famous Last Meals
by Richard Cumyn
Enfield & Wizenty, 2015
283 pp, $19.95

Lindsey Drager recently argued in the Michigan Quarterly Review that novellas are unfairly cast as “a smaller brand of novel, underdeveloped, minor, feminine.” It’s true that they’re often seen as something less than a novel; but as Richard Cumyn proves in this collection of three short works, when pulled off correctly, the novella can be more satisfying and layered than even the most complex novel. Famous last meals is a collection of three novellas, The Candidate, the title Novela, Famous last Meals and The Woman in the Vineyard.

 The Candidate

In The Candidate, Adam Lerner is the sort of young man the world is full of; coddled and privileged, educated without anything resembling real knowledge. His father gets him a job at the Prime Minister’s Office as a means of making contacts, though Adam isn’t particularly passionate about the work. He is a blank slate — not really aware of political affiliations, mildly surprised by the conflicting interests he witnesses and is asked to take part in, and vaguely aware that much of what he is asked to do is, in some way, wrong.

His department is drafted by the ruling party to help a candidate win a seat in a small town in Nova Scotia. Adam goes door-to-door, shakes hands, and tries to win votes, always a little hapless and without interest. After an encounter with an old party supporter and the local socialist candidate, Adam is dragged into a series of events that leads him to believe he may become the new candidate. It’s a broad, political farce that Cumyn seems to enjoy writing, and that enjoyment is infectious. As Adam bounces around the story, you can’t help but root for him, despite some unlikely plot turns. It’s a perfect story for a novella; entertaining, but with enough weight to prevent it from being simply entertainment.

Famous Last Meals

The re-creation of the last meals of people who died young — the Famous Last Meals of the title —serves as the framework for two separate storylines. The first follows Colin, his wife, and another couple as they carry out elaborate dinner parties and live through the infidelities and strife of their evolving relationships.  The second, and by far more interesting story, is that Colin’s memories of his first love, a young dancer who he met as he entered adulthood, and who introduced him to a world of artistic expression and gave him the confidence to analyse that world.

Jane, the young dancer, goes out of her way to take in experience that she can then channel into her art. She is not the sort of artist who creates out of nothing, but one who interprets what she has lived into her performances. The strongest scenes in the book are those where Cumyn, through Colin’s narration, describes Jane performing. Modern dance can be intimidating, but Cumyn does an incredible job of bringing it to life; interpreting it for the reader in a way that is as enjoyable as it is instructive. Jane’s need to find experience seems to excuse her erratic behaviour in the mind of Colin; though the instability of Jane ultimately leads her to, what appears to be, a suicide attempt. Forced apart by this, they separate to their own, adult lives; Colin to marriage, and her to stardom as a dancer.

The last meals storyline does not come together as well as the rest of the book. It is a necessary device — the narrator must have the retrospect of years to see Jane properly — but the  foursome of last mealers are secondary to the young-Colin storyline, and the characters are not as compelling. And the final reveal of Jane’s motivation for her suicide attempt is revealed in a clunky scene—a chance encounter followed by an exposition-filled drunken phone call. The framework used to tell the story is too distracting; to visible to the reader, which causes the work to feel, ultimately, unsatisfying.

The Woman in the Vineyard

Of the three novellas, The Woman in the Vineyard is the gem; the perfect novella, one you can read in one sitting, but that sticks with you long after. The premise is relatively simple; a writer uses a bit of real life as the basis of a book. From there, the lines between reality and fiction are endlessly blurred as levels of fact are obscured by many different artists’ interpretations of it.

Troyer, the writer, stays at the house of his former teacher and fellow writer, who is the unnamed narrator of the book. Troyer has just returned from an artist’s retreat, where he witnessed a scene between a famous director and his former wife. He spends his time with his old mentor discussing the encounter, mentally filling out the scene that will eventually become the basis of a successful book.

Troyer, in discussion with the narrator, interprets the scene he witnessed in the vineyard as the director attempting to undermine his ex-wife’s new artistic direction — to knock her off her game. In the fictionalized version that Troyer creates for his book, he has the director (in the book, a playwright) instead write an impossible-to-act role, a tour-de-force scene that will ruin his ex’s career. The scene the fictional actress is made to perform in the book is based on a scene in one of the real-life director’s movies, and which stared the ex-wife, the woman in the vineyard. Adding another layer: the scene in the movie is based on a real-life scandal that involved the trial of a young maid who possibly witnessed a body being dumped (and, if you want to go deeper, the maid character in the movie was loosely based on the director’s mother). Several real-life events are interpreted and reinterpreted through several artists, and the whole lot is, ultimately, told through Cumyn’s narrator, who has been tasked with turning the book into a play.

It’s a testament to Cumyn’s writing that these tangled, complicated layers of reality and fiction never confuse the reader. The Woman in the Vineyard is the sort of story that you can read as much or as little into as you want. You can read it straight through and enjoy a story of artists’ creating, or you can dig into the layers and see what you can turn up. It’s a tight piece of fiction that benefits greatly from rereading, and is easily the most successful use of the novella form in the collection.

 

 

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