Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/8/2009 (4264 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
By Christopher Willard
Esplanade Books/Vehicule Press, 127 pages, $17
EXTRAORDINARY is too mild a word for Sundre. But in a sense the novel offers its own best insight into its richness when one of its narrators, Sandra, describes her daughter's birth: "There was originality in her birth in the way that perfect originality is found in the usual if only you take the time to look."
This second literary novel by Christopher Willard, an American-born visual artist living in Alberta, lets us discover that perfect originality in this saga of Avery and Sandra, living with their two sons and daughter on a farm outside Sundre, a small town south of Edmonton.
The story, told alternately by Sandra and Avery, is a potent, grave, moving chronicle of their lives. Stylistically it is a communion (there is no other word for it) of the poetic and the dramatic narrative.
It's as if Annie Proulx in her Wisconsin stories (of which Brokeback Mountain is the most famous) met Prairie playwrights like Maureen Hunter (in her play Footprints on the Moon), or Saskatchewan playwright and fiction writer Connie Gault, (in her play Sky), to produce an interweaving series of measured monologues rich with emotion.
Specifically, Sandra is the poet (mostly), while Avery is the storyteller (mostly). The novel is told in a mixing of memory and immediacy with Avery stoic, melancholy and emotionally searching, and Sandra flowing, imagistic and edging towards silence since words, cast against the power of the land, become inadequate.
Children are born, grow, have crises, go off to Toronto, like the daughter, Sheryn-Lee, or stay and die in a stupid car crash, like Dode, the older son, or come out of the same crash broken in spirit, like Dusty, the younger son, and driver, who had been sent back to fetch a guitar on the demand of his often disapproving father.
Funerals are attended. The community moves on, as does time. Sandra retreats into religion, Avery works. Then Sandra can't swallow: "She never spoke of it aloud. Never the word. She acted as though she didn't know. She knew."
She is treated unsuccessfully and slowly fades away until she makes a demand that Avery shoot her. Avery is helpless ("She couldn't swallow. What are a man's hands to do with that?") but his central belief is that there is determination and accident.
Take control or nature will. Only then do we fully grasp the opening of the book when he "shoots" her picture, while they both recklessly lean out from the Rosedale Suspension Bridge, is the image we need to hang onto, just as they must to the bridge, and each other.
They are suspended, and so is the reader between that determination and accident. The novel leads to where it has been going and where we as readers may not want to go.
The opening melts into the end. The story opens with Avery's almost jocular remark, "I didn't want to take a shot but I couldn't deny this woman."
He doesn't, and the novel ends with time and memory from the bridge closed as the couple let go of their world. Sandra knows only: "what we are cannot be said."
She, or maybe it is Avery, for at this point, they, like their memories are becoming one, we sense, notes "there was the most absolutely singular quality of light that morning."
The novel doesn't ask sympathy for their decision, let alone for their lives. Willard doesn't miss a step. He presents the "perfect originality" of the ordinary lives of this couple, and asks no quarter.
Rory Runnells is the artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights and fiction editor for Prairie Fire.