Issue 53.4 is Here and It’s a Handful!

11223743_1156727874354093_3361821410850414474_nOkay, okay: you try to think of crab puns that don’t involve the obvious! The pressure of nailing puns aside, PRISM’s Summer issue 53.4 is here and will be in your mailboxes very soon!

Our affectionately named issue, “Crab Hands”, contains so many great pieces we’re really excited about. We’ve got the winners and runner-ups for the 2015 Poetry and Fiction Contests, judged by Ken Babstock and Marina Endicott. Four poems by Aislinn Hunter about her time as the resident poet at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, four poems by Trillium Award Finalist Steven Heighton from his forthcoming issue with House of Anansi, and poems by four more poets: Chris Banks, Suzannah Showler, Sandry Shreve, and Laura Matwichuk. Orlando Hernández translates two poems by Dionisio Cañas from Spanish, poems with deceptively simple language: “I slept with a future hanged man./ It wasn’t my intention to make love/ to Death, but such is life.” (71)

Toronto writer Trevor Corkum’s stuns with his powerful memoir about his turbulent time in Turkey while Zach VandeZande  imagines Henry David Thoreau as a questionable boyfriend. Marcia Walker’s “Meditation on Dresses” tracks a woman’s relationship with her mother through the purchase of dresses.

Now we can’t forget about the cover! As soon as we saw Davide Luciano’s “Knitting a Stitch”, we were all in agreement. We had to have it! We love the colours, the composition, the crab hands! Yes, we know that’s not what they’re called, but it’s stuck.

We hope you enjoy our latest issue! If you don’t have subscription yet, you can sign up here! If you want to get your pinchers on this issue, you can get it here. Better hurry! With all the fantastic content, we don’t expect them to be around for long!



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Using the Tools at Hand: An Interview with Elena Johnson

Interview by Rob Taylor

Spines - Elena Johnson

spine of the sky
 spine of the sparrow

   spine of the sheep’s horn
    spine of the antler

       spine of footsteps over tundra
        spine of white plastic

          spine of unknowing

           spine of modern research
           spine of the lilting shack

           spine of the black spruce
          spine of the pika

         spine of the 21st-century human

     spine of a caribou 
    settling into the scree  

from Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra
(Gaspereau Press, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.

Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is to the Canadian poetry world as a marmot is to the Alpine Tundra. I don’t think I need to explain how the world of CanPo is like a barren tundra, do I? But Field Notes being a marmot might take a minute.

Ok, so you’ve got a big empty expanse, right? Lots of scrub plants and stubby trees clinging to the sides of rocks and such, the wind howling. And occasionally there’s a big, flashy animal making itself known: some proud caribou or robust mountain sheep or a grizzly bear taking swipes at its neighbours. They insist on being the stars of the show. But then you hear this little sound every once and a while, this little whistle, and you know something else is busy at work, too. You just can’t see it yet.

Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is that marmot hiding in the rocks while all the bigger creatures lumber by. It has been living in the CanPo tundra for years (originally composed in 2008), and you’ve heard or spotted it from time to time, as when excerpts or earlier versions of the book were longlisted for a CBC Literary Award in 2010 and shortlisted for the Alfred G. Bailey Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2013. But it took until Spring 2015 for you to spot it in all its glory, when it was published by Gaspereau Press.

Slight in stature (48 pages with all the paratextual padding), narrow in scope (exclusively focused on Elena’s short visit to a field research project in the Yukon), and composed using stripped-down language to match its subject, the book could easily slip your attention. Don’t let it. An attentive, meditative look at wildness and how we can and cannot lasso it (in words; in graphs and charts), it’s a book to read and return to, to dip into when you need a refreshing jolt, like stepping into a cold stream.

I hiked into the Alpine Tundra and waited for Elena and her little marmot to arrive. It took many months of waiting, but Elena had taught me to be patient. When they finally appeared, I asked Elena a few questions about Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra, and the results are below. I hope you enjoy!

- Rob Taylor

Elena Johnson, in her blue period.

Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is a series of poems composed in 2008 during your time as writer-in-residence with a field research project in the Yukon. Could you speak a little about the residency? How did you find out about it?

I had applied for a job back in 2006 to work as a field ecology researcher at the Kluane Alpine Ecosystem Project’s field camp in the Yukon’s Ruby Range. I ended up taking another job that summer instead, but I kept wondering about this remote mountain range in the Yukon. It occupied my imagination for several years. In 2008, after the first year of my master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, I had the great luck of having some free time to travel in the summer, and wrote a proposal asking to visit the camp as their writer-in-residence, in exchange for assisting with some field research (and doing my share of cooking, etc.). A close friend of mine who had worked at the camp for many years vouched for my abilities as a backpacker, researcher, writer, and generally likeable human being. The proposal was accepted. I was helicoptered in with the food supplies, and I hiked out at the end of my stay.

Did you have any hesitations about taking on the project? Was there ever a point during those weeks when you found yourself questioning or regretting your choice to attend?

On the day I was supposed to hike down toward the treeline and head home, I got lost. It was a foggy day, and I was with someone who knew the way. But because there was a dead sheep on the usual trail, which meant the grizzly that had killed it was likely still in the area, we had to take an alternate route. No one would lend us a map. (There were only two topographic maps at the camp, so they were valuable.) So we ended up on a mountainside, in a dense fog, not sure where or how we’d taken a wrong turn. I had a compass, notebook and pencil in my pocket, so we drew a rough map of where we’d come from and marked the last place we were certain we’d been. Then we attempted to retrace our steps back to that area. Luckily, we found our way. When the fog cleared a bit, we had already made our way – roughly – back toward camp. At that point, we were very close to the trail with the dead sheep – exactly the area we were supposed to be avoiding! All that to say that on that particular day I imagined a helicopter search and hoped they’d find us alive. But even during that incident, I didn’t regret being there. I did attempt a poem about this experience of being lost in the fog, but it simply wasn’t a good poem. There are hints of this experience in the book, though – a line or stanza here and there. And there is a poem about the dead sheep.

I’m someone who loves to camp and travel, so I’m accustomed to roughing it. A more precious person would have had a hard time in these conditions – no bathing, unless you could jump into an icy creek or get the cook-tent to yourself for a half hour and heat a pot of water; cold temperatures; sleeping in a shared tent; etc. But I loved it. Well, I guess a bath or shower would have been nice.

Hoary MarmotYes, I remember that poem – the “Dead Sheep Valley”. The way that image of the dead sheep (“Bear-marks / in its flank”) jumps out of the poem, leads me to think about one of the most arresting qualities of the poems in Field Notes. The language is so spare and stripped down, mirroring the landscape. But then one flashy word suddenly appears in a poem and it shines like it never would in a different collection – like wild flowers, or a small mammal springing up among the stones, or a dead sheep out of nowhere with a claw slash through its side.

I wonder if you chose this sparse, stripped down writing style consciously when writing these poems, or if it came about naturally, in response to the landscape?

Thanks for this insightful description of the poems. Nearly all of the poems were written in the mountains (the Ruby Range), and I think the setting – the terrain itself – did have a big influence on the shape and style of the poems. But it wasn’t a conscious decision – as always, I just picked up a pencil and scrawled some lines into a notebook. I’ve noticed, over time, that the size of the pages of the notebooks I’m writing in affects the forms of the poems in both subtle and direct ways, and I think that principle was at work here, too – I had tiny notebooks that fit into my pockets, and one wider notebook. As for the language, I think I was just using the tools at hand – the vocabulary of the people around me, and the phrases my brain put together as I observed what was around me.

I’ve noticed that for myself, too – that the size of notebook can affect the shape of the final poem. How do your non-Field Notes poems, written (I assume) in notebooks of all shapes and sizes, differ from these? Is your stylistic approach the same?

I don’t have a consistent stylistic approach. My approach to poetry is always evolving. So my non-Field Notes poems are very varied – in theme, style, tone, voice, diction…. Some are quite sparse and small, like these, some are lists, like some of these, but others are very narrative and some are experimental. Found poems pop up now and then in the other collections I’m working on, as they do in this one. I’ve also been writing haiku and tanka for many years, and people have pointed out that there is a haiku-like feel to some of my other work. Another ongoing influence is my interest/background in ecology. I suppose a consistent element in my work is that it’s often a response to a geographic environment, whether urban or rural; the poems tend to have a clear setting, rather than being abstract or language-based. (And yet I enjoy reading work that is abstract and language-based.)

In reading Field Notes, I was reminded of a number of other books in which the poet reports from a remote part of Canada, such as Al Purdy’s North of Summer (especially poems like “Trees at the Arctic Circle”) or Anna Swanson’s The Night Also and its suite of poems about her time in an Alberta fire lookout. Did any books (poetry or otherwise), or particular poems, serve as inspirations or guides for you in writing these poems? Did you look to any titles in particular when considering how to compile the poems as a book?

I did bring a few books with me on this trip, and I remember that one of them was by Charles Simic. But I don’t think you can comb through and find any Simic influences in here. I don’t remember which other books I brought along, but I know that none of them were Northern-themed. When I camp and travel, I like to photocopy a few pages from many different books and bring those – it’s a mini collection that is light to carry and can be put to other uses (scrap paper, tinder, etc.) if necessary.

When I got back home, it took a while to type up what was in my notebooks and see what was working. As I started to shape the poems into a series, I did look to some other collections. I remember that I read much of Gary Snyder’s Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. While Snyder’s poems didn’t resonate directly with my own work, his translations of Han Shan (Cold Mountain Poems) did. There was one passage I copied down and tacked to my wall, and I included that passage as the postscript in Field Notes.

I also looked to some other poets’ collections to see how they had incorporated a long series of poems into a more assorted collection. (I originally thought Field Notes would be just one section of book, so was trying to figure out how to structure a collection around it.) While I was in the final editing stages this fall, I read some of Paulette Jiles’ writing on her time in Northern Ontario, including the poetry collection Celestial Navigation; I loved a lot of it, but I don’t think it had an influence on these poems, especially because the locale – and community – she was writing about were so different from where I was. And several writers have noticed that there might be a Kroetsch influence in these poems, but I hadn’t read his work at all until these poems were finished.

I should mention that one of these poems was included in Arc Poetry Magazine’s North-themed issue in the winter of 2013. If anyone reading this interview is interested in poetry about – or from – the North, that issue contains a lot of incredible work. There are so many amazing poets in it, many of whom live in Northern communities. The issue’s out of print now, but available in libraries.

I love that idea of reading poems and then using them to start fires! The poems in Field Notes… prepare yourself… really “caught fire” themselves – they were longlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in 2010, and were part of larger manuscripts that were shortlisted for the Alfred G. Bailey Prize in 2012 and 2013. In other words, these poems have been garnering acclaim, and bouncing around from one arrangement/manuscript to another for quite some time now. Can you speak a little about the journey the poems took from original composition to the final product as a full-length collection?

This series of poems remained fairly unchanged between 2010 and its publication date (2015). But it took me a while to gather my confidence and start sending it around to publishers. The changes that were made to these poems were fairly minor: deleting a word here or there, or taking out unnecessary passages – mostly whittling and reordering.

Connected to the above, Field Notes is just barely long enough (48 pages with all its paratexts and a good amount of white space) to qualify as a full length “book” by Canada Council standards. How do you feel about that? Did you have any desire to add poems to the series to pad it out?

I’ll admit I did feel a bit shy about putting a smallish book out into the world, especially for my first collection. This work was originally part of a longer collection that included a variety of other poems not related to this series – travel poems and urban poems, for example. It was my editor at Gaspereau Press, Andrew Steeves, who suggested that we try splitting the collection in two and giving the Alpine Tundra poems their own book. When I put my ego aside, I could see that he was right – I had basically folded two books into one, and the Alpine Tundra series was really distinct from my other work. And, deep down, I had always wanted these poems to have their own book – I just didn’t realize that there were enough poems. 48 pages seemed the right size for this collection; in the end, I actually had a few extra alpine tundra poems that we just didn’t have room for.

Do you have a general preference when you’re reading towards shorter or longer collections?

As a reader, I enjoy both short and long collections. But I do find that 70 or 90 pages can feel a bit long if the book is exploring just one main theme. Friends of mine (poets and non-poets) have mentioned that the small size of this collection appeals to them – they feel that they can potentially read it in one sitting, or that they’re not overwhelmed/intimidated by the idea of reading a whole book of poetry, cover to cover.

I’m glad you mentioned Andrew Steeves and Gaspereau. As I read your book, which includes some charts and tables from the scientific research the project was undertaking, I was struck by how it seemed perfectly suited to Gaspereau, who are known for not just publishing great writing, but making physical books that are works of art in themselves. Were all of the graphs and maps in the book already a part of it when you submitted it to Gaspereau, or were some of them added later?

All but two of the graphs, maps and other visuals were already in the manuscript when I first sent it to Gaspereau. Two of them were added in later, during the year between signing the contract and beginning the final edits. I had some time that year to take a new look at the manuscript, and wrote to the camp’s head researcher to see if he had any graphs that illustrated certain ideas/findings I was hoping to incorporate into the text. He sent a few, and two of them fit in quite perfectly.

One of the things I’ve really appreciated about working with Gaspereau, and specifically with Andrew Steeves, the editor, is that he sees, in the same way I do, that these visuals are poems in themselves. I think he sees the true beauty in, say, the illustrations of the cross-sections of willow stems. Not all editors would be open to including these scientific charts and illustrations.

More generally, how, if at all, did working with Gaspereau change your expectations for what the book was, and what it could be?

As I mentioned above, the biggest change the book underwent (and this was just a few months before publication), was being split in two. I’m so glad to have been working with an editor who could see that these poems needed a book of their own. The other change was that I sent Andrew some of my photographs from my time in the Yukon, with the thought that perhaps he’d like to base a line-drawing on one of them for the cover of the book. Instead, he chose to use two of the photos in the book itself – one as the cover, and one as a two-page spread at the front of the book.

I felt the book was in good hands, and that was a great comfort during the editing and production processes. Gary Dunfield and Andrew did such a beautiful job with the book. Even the typeface was so thoughtfully chosen. I feel pretty honoured to have worked with them.

Have you shown these poems to members of the research team you accompanied? If so, did you have any trepidation doing so, and what was their response? If not, do you plan on sending them a copy of the book?

I sent an early draft to one of the head researchers a few years ago, to make sure it all made sense from a scientific standpoint. And I sent a copy last summer to the professor in charge of the field camp, with the same intention: to make sure it made sense, and that I hadn’t misrepresented any of the science.

At this point, they’ve both received their copies of the finished book, and have sent words of delight my way. It means so much to me that they love the poems, and the book. They were open to having a poet at their camp, having no idea what would come of it. It goes without saying that I couldn’t have written this book without their support.

Self Portrait Alpine Tundra 2Researchers – mostly biologists and ecologists – were coming and going from the camp during the weeks that I was there. We had a group of 6-8 people at any point in time. Because the group kept changing, I wasn’t able to thank them all by name in the acknowledgements at the back of the book. But I am so thankful to each one of them: they cooked for me and ate what I cooked, they made sure I knew where to watch out for bears, they took me along on their field studies (including marmot-trapping and plant-counting), they made good coffee, and they reminded me to spend time writing poems. They even made me a card when I left – a crayon drawing on a folded sheet of printer paper. While the poems have an alone-in-the-wilds feeling, there was definitely a social element to my time in the mountains. Even if I spent the day alone, I was happy to have supper with these folks at the end of the day.

In one of the nearly-final versions of the book, I made a sweeping dedication: to all the scientists who dedicate their lives to the study and protection of northern ecosystems. The dedication was perhaps a little much, and was edited out; I simply thanked this specific research team in my acknowledgements. But I do feel this work is dedicated, more broadly, to field scientists in general, and especially those who focus on northern ecosystems.

Make sure you corner a copy of Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra and pluck it from the scree. You can do so from your local bookstore, or from the Gaspereau Press website, or, if you wish to gut the book industry as a grizzly does a sheep, via Amazon.

Rob Taylor is a former Poetry Editor at PRISM international. You can read more of his interviews here.

All photos © Elena Johnson.

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A Review of “Les misérables” by Sasha Singer-Wilson

Review by Sasha Singer-Wilson

Les Mis

The cast of Les Misérables. Photo by Ross den Otter.

Les Misérables
Music by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Bill Millerd
Arts Club Theatre Company
Stanley Industrial Stage

Most of us know something of the story of Victor Hugo’s celebrated novel, Les Misérables. Or, we know a song or two from its musical adaptation, which premiered in London in 1985. “There is a castle in the clouds/ I like to go there in my sleep”, or “On my own/ pretending he’s beside me”. Les Misérables is one of the most famous musicals, having been produced in over three hundred and twenty cities around the world, not to mention turned into a Hollywood blockbuster in 2012.  The London production is the world’s longest running musical. While some of the themes are still resonant, it seems that the most powerful connection is that of nostalgia. The Arts Club brings back their 2009 hit production, and fills the Stanley with lots of melancholy and a little bit of marvel.

The operatic song cycle is about Jean Valjean (Kieran Martin Murphy), a misjudged man who has served almost two decades in a prison labour camp for stealing bread for his starving niece. The antagonist, Inspector Javert (Warren Kimmel), releases him from prison, but Valjean must carry a card that marks him as an ex-convict. In hopes of a fresh start, Valjean shreds the card and takes on a new identity, allowing him to become a prosperous businessman. When one of his workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rebecca Talbot), dies in his arms, he adopts her daughter, Cosette (played by nine-year-old Jaime Olivia MacLean and then by Kaylee Harwood). They become involved in the uprising of the French Revolution and the melodrama continues until the final curtain.

Boubil and Schönberg’s musical is over-the-top and favourite melodies are repeated over and over. Kretzmer’s English translation is in one moment cringe-worthily cheesy and then poignant the next. Of particular note is the boisterous number Master of the House in which Nicola Lipman and Andrew Wheeler shine as sinister innkeepers M. and Mme. Thenardier. Jennie Neumann nails the spirited Éponine, and her song, On My Own, is a real treat.

As Valjean, Kieran Martin Murphy brings stoic tenderness but, in this particular matinee performance, struggled with the vocal demands of the role. Bruce Kellett’s re-orchestration shaves the musicians down to six. My companion and I wondered, at intermission, if the tracks had been pre-recorded. “It sounds like they are singing karaoke,” I said. Unfortunately the score was no match for the vocal prowess of the company and cheapened the experience. After a quick bit of research when I got home, I learned that half of the band is on keyboards. That’s why it sounded like a DJ from the 80’s was involved.

Scenically, Millerd’s production is sparser than a Broadway touring production. While the wow factor is diminished, the intimacy of the Stanley lends itself well to a simpler staging. The design team of Ted Roberts (set), Marsha Sibthorpe (lights), and Alison Green (costumes) bring the kaleidoscope world to life, with shifting archways, morose shadows and the disparity between the rich and the poor illustrated through characters dressed in both tattered rags and shining silk.

I was struck by the fact that, in a show with a cast of nineteen multi-talented performers, all of them were white. While this may be historically accurate, in a 2015 production taking place in a diverse city, this casting choice strikes me as not only dated, but bordering on distasteful.

An entertaining Saturday afternoon at the theatre, the Vancouver audience clearly enjoyed Les Misérables. Why don’t you see for yourself–can this classic endure the tests of time? Or, are we in need of present-day stories that reflect the complexities of our times with a new tune?

Les Misérables plays at The Stanley until August 16th. For tickets, click here.

Sasha Singer-Wilson is a Vancouver based and Toronto bred theatre maker and writer. She has worked with over a dozen award-winning theatre companies. She makes theatrical things with the immersive company the blood projects and tiny literary things with these five minutes. Sasha is an Associate Producer of Brave New Play Rites and is an MFA candidate in Playwriting at The University of British Columbia.


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The Present is Not the Future: A Review of “Karate Chop”

Review by Christopher Evans

Dorthe and Karate Chop_0Karate Chop
Dorthe Nors
Translated by Martin Aitken
Graywolf Press, 2014

In her first short story collection, and her first book translated into English, Danish writer Dorthe Nors presents fifteen stories over eighty-eight pages. To call Karate Chop’s style minimalist would be to do it a disservice; like the physical book itself, the stories inside are not so much spare, as lean. While the wording, either through Martin Aitken’s translation or rooted in Dorthe Nors’ original Danish versions, occasionally feels clunky or formal on a line-level, somehow the sentences all fuse together to heighten her characters’ feelings of emotional isolation. Even when Nors allows the narrators’ minds to wander—to make the rambling, sometimes tenuous connections that allow each of their voices unique, and help to avoid uniformity over so many short-short stories—the writing is still taut with intention.

Karate Chop is populated by the children of indifferent and selfish parents, rogue government officials, and animals that die cruel deaths. Nors offers her characters, and her readers, little in the way of comfort. In “Female Killers,” a man stays up after his wife has gone to bed, searching the Internet for information about serial killer Aileen Wuornos. “Mutual Destruction” charts a hunting friendship through the killing of dogs. In the title story, a woman justifies the physical abuse she receives from her boyfriend. Often, characters in the collection seem locked, not quite ready to extricate themselves from the mundaneness of their everyday lives.

That is not to say that Karate Chop offers only bleakness. Almost all of the stories are underscored with pitch-black humour, and many offer moments of surprising buoyancy. The longest piece in the collection, “The Buddhist,” satirizes both self-actualization and the do-goodery of non-profit organizations:

“The young people and the idealists are all going to work for the Buddhist and the Cause. He can pretty much decide for himself what the Cause is going to be, as long as it involves people and aid. Both things appeal to him.” (12)

“The Big Tomato,” set among immigrant workers in New York City, ends with a brief moment of intimacy which, in the context of the collection, feels something like love, like “a kind of happiness so big it can’t all be in the picture.” (28)

Between the scenes of sudden violence and dark hilarity and unexpected poignancy, Karate Chop contains flashes of introspection. In the opening story, “Do You Know Jussi?,” a young woman drifts from watching scripted reality television to recalling sparring with her brother while working in her father’s office to fantasizing about following strangers, all in the minutes after losing her virginity. While the event doesn’t really alter her life in the moment, and her parents continue their domestic routine just meters away, there is the feeling that change—real change—is lurking just around the corner, out of view, but not out of reach. And that view, maybe, is what really ties the collection together—the thought that the present, regardless of how binding it may seem, does not necessarily have to be the future.

Originally from Victoria, BC, Christopher Evans now lives in Vancouver with his wife, young daughter, and two disgruntled cats. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared in GrainThe New QuarterlyRiddle Fence, and other fine publications in Canada, Australia, Ireland, and the USA.



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The Tuesday Prompt: You Can Scrap it All

ScrappydooYou may think writing prompts aren’t for you. And maybe you’re right. We’ve had a lot of writers on here saying that they rarely use prompts, though they recognize their merit.

The thing is, I have enough difficulties making the time to write and find it infuriating that when I have made that time, I “can’t” write. I use writing prompts to get the pen moving. Often, I stop after a paragraph and work on whatever it is that I’m trying to do. The thing is about writing prompts, or working from given text (rather than a blank page), is that you can scrap any part of it (now you understand why there’s a picture of Scrappy Doo). Obviously, you can scrap all of it too, but what I mean to say, is that just because you’ve started with found text doesn’t mean you have to keep it. Sometimes, borrowing lines from other poems, stories, dialogue–whether it’s yours or someone else’s–can be enough to get you writing. And that’s what we all need, right? We just need to write. I need a bit of a jolt to get me going and maybe you do too.

This week’s prompt is courtesy of the tumblr account Awesome Writing Prompts: Writing Prompts that Don’t Suck. It’s a great account if you’re looking for focused, writing exercises and she has over 600 of them. I liked this one:

Start your story with this sentence:

Every morning I wake up in the armpit of this alien world. 

It reminded me of how downtown Vancouver looked two weeks ago from the forest fires. Anyway, this could be the line for you that starts a story, a memoir, a poem. Or maybe you like one of the other 649 prompts she has.

Good luck and happy writing!

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How echoes of the past can reverberate through time: a review of Aislinn Hunter’s “The World Before Us”

Review by Sarah Richards

The World Before Us978-0-385-68064-6-e1409067559833
Aislinn Hunter
Doubleday Canada, 2014

This novel explores the passage of time, or, more acutely, how echoes of the past can reverberate through time and eclipse the present. The ambiguity of the novel’s name encapsulates the central conflict at play: the friction between the world that transpired before us and the world that is laid out before us.

Our protagonist, 34-year-old Jane, is haunted by two mysterious disappearances that occurred 125 years apart. As a teenage babysitter, her young charge, Lily, disappears into the woods and is never seen again. Later, during her post-graduate fieldwork on archival practices in rural nineteenth-century asylums, she travels back to the same patch of forest in Yorkshire, England only to discover through her research that another girl named N also vanished there.

At the outset we learn of Jane’s more immediate concerns. Lily’s father reappears suddenly in her life, her career as an archivist at a flailing museum is ending, and, because she can’t let go of the past, Jane is increasingly alienated from her family and friends. To escape her crumbling life in London, she returns to the place where Lily and N vanished.

Guiding us on the journey is a first-person plural narrator. Though initially referred to individually by cryptic nicknames—“the idiot,” “the one with the soft voice,” and so on—their identities become clearer the deeper we dive into Jane’s research. While their presence is initially jarring and their discordant voices may at times compete with the other plot lines, the narration falls into a steady rhythm. They are the spirits that haunt Jane, and who now tell us the story of how Jane came to be haunted. They are former inhabitants of the now-defunct Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics and Inglewood manor, who lived in 1877.

How, you might ask, do we see ourselves? How have we come to understand our predicament? Look around you: everywhere life forces wanting to get out, things unintentionally contained, baskets of energy. One of us believes we are like atoms with no centre; the one who likes clocks says we are lost time. Another believes we are poems, another thinks we are dreams meant to sort useless information, another thinks we are like sheets set out on the summer line, holding fists of air. We all believe we are Here. (55)

We learn that the narrators and Jane have developed a symbiotic relationship ever since she conjured their names, when she delved into the Victorian-era ledgers and diaries and books for her dissertation research. The author cleverly ties her narrative experiment to one of the epigraphs—“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them,” by George Eliot—bringing the words to life in a new and exciting way. Without Jane’s research, these Victorian ghosts cease to be.

This is why we’re here: because Jane thinks about us almost as much as she thinks about herself, because the distance between her life and ours is not as great as with others and because we are lost and Jane is the closest thing we’ve got to a map. And she is a good archivist, has a willingness to navigate history, to consider its blank pages. (33)

The ghosts see Jane as a hinge between the two worlds, or a door she dreams about, “what slips through, what goes missing.” (1) Jane moves seamlessly between time periods, and her search for answers propels the story forward. She takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of N, presumably as a proxy for coming to terms with her own loss of Lily. But history, as the narrators point out, shouldn’t be trusted:

Jane thinks it is a buffer, a static place that sits obediently between now and then—something she can pass through, the way people walk through the natural history hall or the upper galleries of the Chester Museum. But we know she is wrong, and we feel bad about that. History is shifty; it looks out for itself, moves when you least expect it. (33)

We follow Jane because the prose is quiet yet expansive, circuitous yet ever-deepening. And we can’t help but fall in love with her loneliness, stoicism, and dogged determination.

When she stumbles onto new details about the nineteenth-century characters, the identities of the narrators come into focus. All the while, Jane’s grasp on reality becomes blurrier, her future threatened. Adding weight to the main story are the compelling characters that make their home in the present day—a young admirer, a disdainful landlady, and Jane’s disapproving brother.

The author is careful to balance past and present. She braids the plot strings, pausing long enough in each scene to undo the knots and tangles. The result is more than 400 pages of moody, dreamlike prose that presents interesting juxtapositions of recollection and imagination, and the collisions of grief and nostalgia, all of which tug us deeper into both worlds before us.

Sarah Richards has published short stories in Room and UNBUILD walls and non-fiction articles in Lonely Planet and She serves on the PRISM International editorial board and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.

We’re excited to feature new poems by Aislinn Hunter in our Summer Issue 53.4. Bee sure to check them out! (Note: pun intended and no apologies will be made.)

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