Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Page-turner captures horrors of alcoholism

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HARD on the heels of Jowita Bydlowska's memoir Drunk Mom comes another Canadian woman's take on alcoholism, this one billed as a novel, though it is based on author Lauren B. Davis's own life.

The Empty Room, excellent itself, joins an impressive list of literary novels devoted to the evils of booze. Some of the best-known are: The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson (which became the famous Ray Milland movie); The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene; Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry; A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley (who insisted it be classified as a fictional memoir); Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates; and The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle. The latter is the only one of these to feature a female protagonist.

Davis, who was born in Montreal but lives in Princeton, N.J., can hold her own in such company. She captures all the mannerisms, rationalizations and coverups of the classic alcoholic in a remarkable novel that proves to be a real page-turner.

The Empty Room presents one dramatic Monday in the life of 49-year-old Torontonian Colleen Kerrigan who, when we meet her, is working as an administrative assistant in the local university's geography department.

After a drunken night she can barely recall, she arrives late for work and is called into her boss's office. She expects the worst when a human resources person joins the meeting.

That is just the first in a series of drastic events that will challenge her both mentally and physically.

In alternating chapters, Davis flashes back to key incidents in Colleen's past: her witnessing -- at age nine -- a fight between her drunken parents; the first time she got drunk, at age 14; her on-again, off-again relationship with her lover Jake; going to an AA meeting with her "garbage-head" cousin Liam, who later committed suicide; throwing up in the men's room of a local nightclub.

In what writers call "free indirect style," Davis moves seamlessly in and out of Colleen's mind as she convinces herself she either needs the next drink or must prepare for when she needs one later. Here's a sample passage in which she's about to leave for a job interview at a temp agency:

"She was already in her coat and just about out the door when she thought she might like a little nip to keep warm on the walk to Eglinton. ... Perhaps she'd take something with her, just in case she got nervous. That seemed prudent. What to take it in? A salad dressing bottle would do nicely. Just the right size. She dumped the contents (past their sell-by date anyway) into the sink and with a fine, almost surgical steadiness she poured vodka into the bottle. Not all the way -- she would leave room for something else, something that looked dressing-y."

Colleen is a would-be writer and an avid reader whose library includes many self-help books on alcoholism; she's read them all, including the Caroline Knapp memoir Drinking: A Love Story.

Davis shows her mastery of dialogue and also her versatility; where The Empty Room concentrates on a single character in Toronto, her powerful previous novel, Our Daily Bread, followed a large cast in a fictional American town.

Davis succeeds in giving us a character we continue to hope for even as Colleen's situation grows more and more grim; and she skilfully shows the funny side of horrific and degrading scenes while never causing us to laugh at her protagonist, always retaining our sympathy.

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest book is Dating: A Novel.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 J8

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