by Margaret Sweatman
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2009.
329 pp. $22.95
Divided into three parts, the novel is about the life of Lilly Cole, an orphaned, ambitious barmaid who aspires for something more. Discovered by an aristocratic poet and playwright named Bartholomew, she enters the world of acting by the way of his guidance, which eventually catches the king Charles II’s eye. However, her position with the king becomes threatened by the means of political intrigue working against her, and she finds herself – while pregnant with the King’s child – running away on a boat with expat Frenchmen destined to sail to China via the North passage. Needless to say, the harsh conditions of the sea prove impossible for China, and must settle down in Canada/New France, whose unrelenting and bitter coldness is far from the imagined abundance of China.
The figure of the performer serves as an apt analogy for describing the helplessness of women of the time. Just as a performer depends on the audience for his/her fate, Sweatman describes women’s utter dependence on men to shape their fates: “What had she gained from notoriety, from her season of fame as an actress? Dependence. Dependence on Charles. Dependence on Bart; gone now.” (299) With the fragmented thought “gone now” almost added as an afterthought, Sweatman effectively captures the fickle nature of favours and life.
Not only does she capture the helplessness of Lilly Cole, the protagonist, but in some way, how everyone involved is helpless – the penniless king, the cynical Prince Rupert, the ex-Puritan captain of the ship Magnus Brown, who all chase the illusion of richesse and gold in hopes of running away from the stifling realities of their worlds.
A playwright and lyricist, Sweatman writes with poetic flair and an ear for dialogue. She is careful with the details of people’s body languages and habits, capturing the tangible qualities of habits and creating a vibrant picture of their environment. The reader also becomes very aware of how each character is always under the gaze of others, being on display as yet another player onstage. Her extraordinary attention to detail is not only displayed in the panoramic descriptions of the characters (which pays attention to everything, from the flicker of an eye to the hesitation in their voices), but also the subtle shift in the style as the setting changes from the elaborate court to the wilderness. The complete and clear sentences become disjointed fragments – words uttered for the sake of survival, thoughts interrupted by the struggles against the unfamiliar surroundings.
The Players is a captivating and poignant account of both the exhilarating and the darker side of performance - how playing a role just right can transform your life, and the helpless nature of performers in the hands of their patrons. Margaret Sweatman has created an eloquent and suspenseful work that captures the realities of three different worlds, showing us the glimpses of the world in transition – the unstable motherland, the liminal space of the voyage, and the unforgiving wilderness – and the adaptability of humans that survive them.
Rosel Kim is Master’s student in English at McGill University, where she studies visual representations of queer identities on contemporary television. In her spare time, she writes about the environment and health at www.naturallysavvy.com.
September 15th, 2009
Jon Paul Fiorentino awarded 2009 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry
August 1st, 2009
Amatoritsero Ede publishes much anticipated book