In Gatineau, Quebec author John Lavery’s third book of fiction and first novel, Sandra Beck (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010), we can almost read the entire book as a study in language, as rich and overwhelming as anything done by Samuel Beckett or James Joyce. Sandra Beck is a study in movement, in propulsion, as Lavery writes a main character who doesn’t actually appear in the book but through the eyes of others, such as through the perspective of her daughter, Josée in the first section, “Cunnkitay,” or her husband, Inspecteur-Chef Paul-François Bastarache, in the much longer second section, “Crutches,” as well as in the post-colophon “extra track” at the end, “Sandra and PF go through Customs in La Paz.”
This isn’t the first we’ve seen of Paul-François Bastarache, the main character in Lavery’s previous work, the linked stories of You, Kwazneivski, You Piss Me Off (ECW Press, 2004). Sandra Beck, through her husband’s and their daughter’s eyes, is obviously a woman they both admire and adore, but don’t necessarily know as well as they think they do, this woman forced to live years on crutches, after a foot operation, “the manager of the world-renowned and frequently recorded Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.” The teenage perspective of Josée and the perspective of her father, roughly a decade later, meet up at points, but just as often deflect off each other, and even contradict, deep in their own knowledge, biases and responses. Or, possibly, is this the way of all people, perpetually unknown or differently known, depending on which of their immediates you ask? This is a novel in search of the title character, exploring with such detail in serious play, language rushing headlong a fluid between English and French, moving at the very speed of thought.
Lavery’s language seems built precisely for the internal confusions of his two narrators, writing out a rush of lush acrobatic prose so masterfully lyric-thick that any reader couldn’t help but occasionally feel upended, overwhelmed and caught up in the undertow. But this is exactly Lavery’s genius; this is prose not pretending to be easy, but meant for a deeper, sustained attention, and even multiple readings. There was a question recently wondering why this book wasn’t up for any of the major national fiction prizes, and the question is appropriate: why not? One of the sharpest, smartest and strongest novel I’ve read in quite a long time, Sandra Beck a fearless display of what writing can be, when done best.
MY MOTHER, AT TIMES, could be seen hunched over her sewing machine, her reading glasses perched on her nose at such a distance from her eyes that it seemed as though the glasses themselves were observing the whirring needle and broadcasting the images directly to her brain, while her eyes looked on like two crew chiefs, self-important but largely unnecessary.
She was tense and irritable as she worked, her pulse fluttered in her neck. She gasped suddenly, froze with horror, slumped, ripped out her stitches, started again. The results disappointed her. always.
She might hold up her latest production as though on the point of throwing it back in the water and say, “How could I have not seen that the waist would be too high for me? It makes me look like a salt shaker with a screw-on top. Your mother is no good at this, Josée.” To which I responded, a child throwing feed to a grown fish, “Oh, not at all, Maman! It’s lovely, it makes you taller.”
When utterly defeated, she swayed in front of the mirror, her arm around the freshly sewn garment, beamed brightly, and did not ask my opinion at all.
It was fabric my mother loved. Flowing bolts of printed cotton, rich with colour and possibility. Her linen closet was stuffed with tablecloths made of kitchen gingham, with percaline-lined cretonne curtains, floral and heavy, with organdy sheers, serviettes in milky, stiff brocade. Not actualized mind you, no, but in a fine state of dollhouse potentiality. Only the fabric itself existed. It had been examined, crumpled, bitten into, paid for and folded away with proprietary jealousy. The closet shelves sagged under the weight of my mother’s hoard, variegated and very expensive, making her dream of sky-washed sheets on the grass of Champagne, of Irish dingles and smoky Flemish sheets.