December 15, 2019

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Stormy weather

Saso's surreal debut an emotionally complex novel

Anthony Tummillo photo</p>

Anthony Tummillo photo

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/11/2016 (1135 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In her first novel, Ottawa-born, Toronto-based Emily Saso shows herself adept at holding narrative and logical tensions until they are just a breath away from falling apart.

In the opening chapters of her debut, the tenuous balance in Avery Gauthier’s life begins to crumble. Her uncle Bryan, who abused her when she lived with him after her father died, begins phoning her from prison; Henry, her husband of one year, recommits himself to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and then leaves her; her mother, Margaret, who has been absent from her life for over a decade, returns.

What follows is a surreal and madcap — occasionally frustratingly so — journey toward a strange sort of transformation.

When Avery’s uncle first calls from prison, Avery is assailed by an interior winter storm: "A bitter wind screams through the window. The force of it whips my hair, tossing it around my head, blinding me. My nose drips. My face numbs. My fingers cramp and fist. I feel shorter, tighter, ready to uncoil. Beneath me, the floor turns to ice."

The storms come more often and more severely through the first three-quarters of the novel, and are accompanied by other hallucinations, among them catastrophic accidents and the periodic appearance of the winter coat Avery had her father buried in.

The disintegration of Avery’s life is mirrored by a disintegration of her surroundings. It begins with the bathroom wall, which separates her apartment from former Canadian Idol winner Billy Pfeiffer’s. In the beginning of the novel it is "a failure at everything a wall is supposed to be" because there’s a "maddening half-inch gap between it and the ceiling."

As the novel progresses, the rest of the apartment also begins to fall to pieces: "The bulge is growing. A tumour in the ceiling that seems untreatable. I stand on the coffee table and tape plastic bags around it to contain the frost that flakes off… The thing won’t burst. It just keeps expanding and moaning, a hideous beach ball in distress."

The effect of the parallels between Avery’s hallucinations and the increasing shambles of her living space is to amplify the stakes in the novel. When Saso blurs the distinction between what is real and what Avery imagines, the effects of her mother’s abandonment, her father’s death, her uncle’s abuse, her not-quite successful attempt to escape the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the dissolution of her marriage become more potent.

While Henry leaves and Bryan calls and Avery’s hallucinations intensify and the apartment continues to fall apart, Avery’s mother arrives.

Uncomfortable as it is to read her arguments with Avery, untenable as her expectation that she forgive her uncle seems, infuriating as her refusal to listen is, Margaret’s arrival, and the friction she brings with her, enables the novel’s resolution. "Margaret raises her arms to the cloud. ‘His walk is in gale and tempest, and clouds are the dust of his feet.’ The cumulonimbus pulses overhead and unleashes more hail bombs so huge and solid they can’t possibly be frozen water. They have to be rock. Chunks of the moon. ‘Screw forgiveness!’ Margaret’s on her knees. Her eyes have a direct line into mine. ‘I want revenge.’"

The novel’s resolution is unexpected, but is consistent with the surrealist and dramatic sensibility Saso maintains throughout.

Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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