Fall on Your Knees
Vintage Canada, 1997
First published in the Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
“Stunning!” “Magnetic!” “Brilliant!” “A talent that has no limits!” The early reviews of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees, were themselves astounding. The critical acclaim as well– amongst other prestigious awards, the book won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Novel. All deservedly so, I have to say, even after a thoughtful second reading, away from all the din and hoopla surrounding its release.
It’s the tale of one star-crossed family who lived in New Waterford, Cape Breton, on the banks of a haunted river. Their story begins, essentially, when young James Piper marries Materia Mahmoud, a child-bride, against the wishes of her family. It is the lives of Jame’s and Materia’s children–Kathleen the sacrificial princess with a once-in-a-century voice, Mercedes the obsessive Catholic good girl, and Francis, her bad girl counterpoint, that are the focus of the book.
Secrets enfold this group like the shroud of a mummy. From the outside, one sees the recognizable form of a family, a little blunted perhaps, though still identifiable. But, as Francis learns in a moment of revelation, “one thing can look like another. That the facts of a situation don’t necessarily indicate anything about the truth of a situation.” The more layers one is willing to peel away, the closer one gets to the truth.
To achieve this, Ms. MacDonald places the reader in the mind of an omniscient narrator, who seems to be musing upon a series of still photos taken in rapid succession throughout the family’s history. One is constantly reminded of the difference between the “facts” of the picture and the truth of it.
This structure, a highly visual style (no doubt an echo of her much-acclaimed play-writing past) and the author’s own unique talents, combine to produce one of the most delightful opening pages ever. One is invited, on a bright moonlit night, to fly, Peter Pan-like, down from the church steeple, into the picture, to explore, in ever decreasing circles, the setting of New Waterford, coming to rest, finally, on the threshold of the Water Street house that centres the story.
That story is a gripping, at times harrowing one. The truth about the Pipers isn’t always very pretty–at times, it flirts with the gothic. But it is told without exploitation and with great wisdom, humour and perception, in a voice that is at once epic and intimate. This is a read ’til you drop tale–and at 566 densely written pages, you’ll need some time.