A Recipe for Bees
Knopf Canada, 1998
Leaning, Leaning Over Water
Harper Collins, 1998
First published in: The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Reviews by: Kerry Riley
Two remarkably similar Canadian novels have been published recently. Both explore the joys and terrors of rural life, the pull of the land and the danger of isolation, the dynamics of marriage, family and friendship, memory and truth, and the pain of loss. Both books are written in a style that could be described, broadly, as “Canadian country gothic,” both stories revolve around the memories of a central female character who grew up in a rural setting, lost their mother early in their lives, and had someone close to them drown. Both books use old, vaguely enigmatic, black and white photos to illustrate sections of the story. Both authors, although not exactly new to the CanLit scene, are currently basking in recent, well-deserved popular attention. It was something of a relief to discover that they live in opposite ends of the country. Despite the striking similarities, both writers manage to tell powerful tales in their own unique and commanding voices.
Although her collection, The Miss Hereford Stories (1995) won critical acclaim, it was her first novel, The Cure for Death by Lightening, (1996) winner of several prizes, and shortlisted for the Giller, that really catapulted Gail Anderson-Dargatz into the literary limelight in Canada. A Recipe for Bees, her follow-up effort, was again shortlisted for the Giller, but lost to Alice Monroe’s Love of a Good Woman.
As Augusta, the main character and narrator of the story, awaits news of the outcome of a much-beloved son-in-law’s brain surgery, she reminisces about her life with an old friend, Rose. Augusta has a gift, inherited from her mother-–she occasionally catches glimpses of things to come. On a recent train ride home from her daughter’s she has experienced a strange vision which she thinks may warn of her own impending death. Perhaps this has rendered her nostalgic. In any case, she takes Rose and the reader on a wide ranging tour of her life, reliving her early years in a farming community, the death of her mother (an event she had also foreseen) her ill-considered marriage to a pair of blue eyes named Karl, and her subsequent strange and lonely life on a farm with Karl and his father Olaf–-whose own wife had died somewhat mysteriously “of cold.”
All of Anderson-Dargatz’s characters are vital and intriguing, but the detestable Olaf stands out as a little masterpiece of characterization. Self-satisfied nastiness personified, he lessens everything he comes in contact with, controlling through relentless diminution. The author captures precisely the tooth-grinding frustration and spiritual impoverishment that results from life with such a creature, especially for a young girl whose sense of self is already fragile and who, initially, only wishes to please. Augusta’s eventual revolt, initiated by a platonic relationship with the local minister, and formalized by an affair with a married man, was a source of much satisfaction for this reader. Although Karl and Augusta’s marriage teeters dangerously, their farming life demands that they fashion some sort of working relationship, which, for all its practicality, becomes a source of comfort and love in their later years.
As her mother was, Augusta is a bee-keeper. Bee facts and folklore, woven through the narrative, keep the story earthy and anchored, and the reader always reminded of the depth, breadth, and wonderful strangeness of this thing we call life.
Frances Itani, like Gail Anderson-Dargatz, had been the recipient of several major writing awards and much critical acclaim, but it was not until the recent release of her first novel, Leaning, Leaning Over Water, that she came to the attention of the general reading public. The book, described as “a novel in ten stories” relates the life of the Anglo-Irish King family, uprooted from a small Ontario town to the banks of a swift river on the edge of a village in rural Quebec, by their father’s post-war search for work.
Trude is the middle child, whose job, according to her mother, is to see “both forward and back…to tell the family stories.” Dutifully, she narrates tales stuffed with the minutiae of childhood–swimming, boyfriends, piano lessons, and attempts to decode the mysterious world of adults. Befriending Mimi, and her large Roman Catholic family, she learns a smattering of French and gains an inkling about a wider world.
While a warm and entertaining narration of the life of one slightly quirky, but basically normal family unfolds, an unsettling element remains, in the person of the Maura, the mother. Her marriage is a bandage, perhaps too hastily placed over an earlier wound. She alone, of her family, remains isolated in her new surroundings–-never mastering a word of French, and bothered that her husband “brought [her]to live beside a fast-flowing river, and [she didn't] know how to swim.”
Her accidental drowning, witnessed by her children, mischievously attempting to spy on their parents’ riverbank party, is the central crisis of the book. Beyond the grief and loss, there is something troubling about Maura’s death–-something Trude and her sister Lyd intuitively understood when they witnessed it, but which has remained unspoken between them. Not till the final segment of the book, entitled “Moving On” do the sisters manage to speak of their concerns, and to come to terms with both the light and dark of life.
Both of these books are highly recommended-–if you like one, you’ll like the other.