Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Juliet Stories

I must first of all confess that I read Gone with the Wind in one epic night and spent one of the happiest days of my life reading the final Harry Potter book from cover to cover.

So I've been known to binge before on books.

Sunday morning, though, I was feeling it. I had been out the night before to a book launch for local author Carrie Snyder's book The Juliet Stories. Carrie and I live in the same neighbourhood, do kind of the same thing, and even have children in the same class, but as it is her eldest and my youngest, our paths have only peripherally overlapped. Almost a year ago, we met for coffee to see whether my fledgling company Storywell, might provide some employment for her that would complement her parenting and writing. She's now one of my associates.

For that reason, my editor at the newspaper felt there was a bit of a conflict of interest in me reviewing her book. I also felt the familiar sense of dread one gets when a friend has a baby or a book -- what if it's ugly? what if I just don't like it? what if it's riddled with typos (book, not baby)?

I knew Carrie was a fine writer from reading her blog, so the fear of quality wasn't there. In this case, I was afraid that the feeling I get when I read a certain wedge of literary fiction or listen to Sarah McLachlan would surface -- a feeling of melancholy and despair. (I can be happy as a clam, but put Sarah on the radio and angst soils my soul.)

So, we went to the launch and it was lovely and crowded and convivial -- all the things you want in such an occasion. We bought a book and Carrie signed it for me. It wasn't a late night so I decided to curl up in bed early and crack open the book. Really, by the second page, I knew I was reading something remarkable. I thought I was reading quickly and then I looked at the clock and discovered it was nearly one-thirty a.m. I was that absorbed.

I had understood that this was a collection of connected short stories, and possibly this is true, but for me the book read as a novel, with gaps and finely chosen moments even within individual stories, leaving space for the reader to make connections.

As I read, two images of the writer came to mind: Carrie as artist or Carrie as surgeon. In either case, what came to me was that where many writers bludgeon around with pens as thick as kindergarten paintbrushes or axes, Carrie uses the finest of paintbrushes or scalpels to paint and carve the most extraordinary portrait of a world. How she does this -- and forgive me for getting technical here -- I think, is in her use of verbs more than adjectives. This isn't a flowery descriptive kind of book; it is more poetic and at the same time, incisive in its observations of the world.

The world of this book almost exactly parallels Carrie's own experience, with a few notable exceptions. Like her character, Carrie is the daughter of peaceworker parents who took their children to Nicaragua. Like her character, Carrie and her family came home because of her brother's illness. The parallels go on. Like many people who knew the parallels and knew that Carrie had attempted some memoir with similar material, I wondered whether this would be more biographical than the author was willing to admit. Probably only she knows for sure, but during my read, I had no sense that it was memoir. Instead, I was fascinated by Juliet's own memory process -- "...there is nothing absolute about telling: there are only fragments, shards, the rare object retained whole, ciphers removed from original context, hoarded by shifty, impecunious memory."

As I read the book, two memories of the book launch arose for me: one, Juliet, at the start of the book, is ten years old, red-haired and aware of adult condescension and failure but also only half-aware of the adult world. As I read, I saw again at the launch the one of Carrie's children who chose to come -- a red-haired girl of almost ten years of age, who at times watched her mother with intense pride, at times surveyed the audience with curiosity and at times curled up into her own world with a book. Juliet come to life before our eyes.

The second alchemy that happened at the book launch was this: as Carrie stood on stage and read from a story where a young peace worker offers Juliet candles to smell, talking about what the smells evoked for her, I began to get whiffs of freesia. I was sitting at the back of the room, on a window sill next to the bar, beside a woman who was not wearing perfume. Carrie was describing a warm subtropical evening and I kept smelling freesia. I wondered how she did it. Later I realized that the room was well-ventilated and that the bouquet of tropical flowers on the stage contained freesia whose scent was carried around the room and to me.

But, even later, as I read the book and had a similar kind of transport, I wondered if maybe I had been right at first, that it had been Carrie's words, carrying me to a place where even flowers give off waves of scent and memory.


  1. All I can say is THANK YOU. This is beautiful piece of writing, and it brought tears to my eyes.

    (Can I note a tiny typo in the bit you quote from the book--an invented word has crept into it: "orufubak" ?? ... made me smile).

    1. What the heck is an orufubak? Hilarious. Will change promptly.

  2. PS I forgot to say that while this book has its melancholy aches to it, it is finely tempered with great good humour and I never had a Sarah McLachlan moment while reading.