In the last year, four new novels landed on my desk in which the main characters’ parents – one or both – mysteriously disappear during the protagonists’ childhood. In Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, in post-WWII England, both parents leave for the far east, and vanish. Wayne Johnston’s First Snow, Last Light opens with the young protagonist returning from school one afternoon in St. John’s during the season’s first snowfall and discovering his parents’ absence. In Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Anna Kerrigan’s father goes missing when she’s fourteen. (I strongly recommend both Ondaatje’s and Johnston’s novels. Egan’s I haven’t yet read.)
The fourth book is The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, who lives near Toronto, whose origins are in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Newfoundland, and with a strong attachment to Nova Scotia.
Lulu is the central protagonist of Christine Higdon’s debut novel, set in Fraser Arm, a (fictional) tiny rural community in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver. When Lulu is a child, with four siblings, her mother disappears. The same day, another mother vanishes from the community without explanation. The novel shifts in time between Lulu’s childhood and fifty-year-old Lulu, returning to Fraser Arm as she recovers from a near-fatal motorcycle accident, her career as a country and folk music fiddler on hold. There are also scenes and details of her life, and of several other characters’ lives, from the intervening years. The narration alternates between Lulu’s first person and the third person narrative of Doris, the “egg lady,” Lulu’s Fraser Arm contemporary, who has never spoken and communicates by writing notes, and who survives with her subsistence farm – chickens and vegetables.
When I read the novel’s final pages – deeply moved, euphoric after infusions of the bittersweet, grounded in earthy reality and also soaring with the knowledge that we humans are capable of ethereal communion – I thought: This is a big novel. Big in heart. Big in spirit – spirit that’s always solidly rooted in the tangible realms of nature and human community. Big in its understanding of the human psyche in all its variegated mystery and wonder, folly and anguish, ignorance and wisdom, duplicity and honesty, love and fear of loving, loss and recovery, abandonment and devotion. Big in its portraits of, and insights into, human relationships in all their complexity and simplicity, enigmas and discoveries, damage, healing, and redemption.
As well, the novel is masterful in the way Higdon deftly embeds her characters’ psyches, relationships, actions, and inactions within the natural world of the Fraser Valley, and within the yards and homes of Fraser Arm. Higdon has a knack for reminding, for showing, us that our lives unfold, weave, unravel, and interweave within our material environments, the realm of the five senses. “She lifts an edge of the curtain. It is still snowing and the sky is an odd pink, like blood seeping into a damp white towel.” “Everything smells and looks different after a storm. The grasses are flattened and the wind or rain – Doris does not know which – has plucked all the salmonberries from their white cone-shaped receptacles and splattered them in the mud.”
The older Lulu is back in Fraser Arm, wondering when and if she will return to Nashville, the festivals and studio work: “The birds were on the roof again. They’d been there all week, getting ready to fly south. I could hear them, a team of small football players scrabbling in cleats from one end of the field to another. Starlings. Stupid starlings, I suppose, because all of a sudden I could hear one flapping around in the chimney. I imagined the flock flying in unison off the roof, dark angels making their undulating murmuration in the sky. One of them says, ‘Hey, where’s Jim?’ ‘I dunno, he was right behind you.’ ‘Right behind me? Shit. He’s gone down the chimney. Just like his dad. We gotta go back.’ ‘Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown. He’s a goner.” Oh yes, Higdon is often funny, a gentle wit, most of the time…though sometimes dark and caustic, as needed.
Right after I finished the novel, and after thinking of the ways in which it was big, I thought: This is a book to live by. These are characters – most of them – to learn from and live by. Now, I suppose all or most fiction writers (and poets, playwrights, memoirists, etc.) hope – overtly or secretly – that their books might inspire this reaction in their readers. If not in the grand and global sense of readers living their whole life according to some text (“Anna Karenina is my bible, a friend once reverently told me” – fortunately, she did not throw herself in front of a train), then in specific ways and circumstances.
In my early “serious” reading years – age seventeen to mid-twenties – there were books I wanted to live by. They varied greatly, as befitting the experimentations and shape-shifting of one’s early adulthood. In my late teens it was Conrad’s Lord Jim (I even planned to, and almost did, ship out on a merchant vessel – but turned down the offer of a seaman’s ticket, with Saigon as the destination.) And The Brothers Karamazov. Then Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund and Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. Nadezhda Mandelstahm’s memoir set in Stalinist Russia, Hope Against Hope. Then, for a long time, I ceased to feel that way about novels, though I have continued to do so about various poets and their work. Now, when I have much less time to live than I did when I was suffused with Conrad and Durrell, I am, blessedly, finding such books again – or, more precisely, feeling this way about certain books I read. Such as The Very Marrow of Our Bones.
Higdon drew me so intimately into her Fraser Arm people that I feel like one of their community – the extended family of characters related both by blood and by experience and belonging. Almost are her characters are eminently decent, likable, even lovable – and eminently human, for they all struggle with their mistakes, needs, yearnings and fears, reluctance and resistance, and the paradoxical burden of blessings. When I was a younger writer and participant in The Banff Centre’s writing program, fiction instructor Sylvia Fraser, after reading one of my stories, said, “Your voice and main character are very likable, admirable, and that’s a strength in your writing. But the story leaves me unsatisfied because you don’t show me the price he paid to become likable and admirable. Everyone pays a price. I need to know the price.” Higdon reveals, scene by scene, the price her lovable characters pay. And, yes, there are a few characters I did not like, not one bit. She does jerks and scumbags quite well.
Finally, though she beautifully slows down the plot – sometimes sets it aside – to provide valuable anecdotes and scenes that develop her characters and their relationships, their lives in Fraser Arm and elsewhere – there is no shortage of suspense. And the tension escalates, the pace quickens in the second half, without sacrificing the ongoing development of character, relationship, and place.
A novel, a story, and characters that now have a firm place in my memory, spirit, and heart