Saturday, November 16, 2013

my second novel, missing persons (2009), reviewed in Canadian Literature

Reviewer Gordon Bölling was good enough to discuss my second novel, missing persons (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2009) in a kind and generous review over at Canadian Literature (even though I think he gives too much away; and why does he insist on upper-casing my name?). Given that this is only the second review I'm aware of (after Cassie Leigh was good enough to discuss it) I appreciate the attention.

He reviews the book alongside Steven Heighton's The Dead Are More Visible: Stories (Knopf Canada) and Dan Vyleta's The Quiet Twin (HarperCollins). See the original review here, and the post I wrote on the novel he mentions, here.
Canadian prairie literature is alive and well. Recent years have seen the publication of a number of such well-received novels as Dianne Warren’s Cool Water and Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man. Warren’s first novel won the 2010 Governor General’s Award for fiction, while Vanderhaeghe’s most recent novel rounds off his highly acclaimed frontier trilogy. Rob McLennan’s Missing Persons has yet to receive the same degree of attention as the above-mentioned books. Nonetheless the poetic novel is a welcome addition to the body of Canadian prairie fiction. In comparison to both, Cool Water and A Good Man, Missing Persons is a rather slim, fragmentary, and open-ended novel. This may be due to the fact that Missing Persons did not start out as a novel in its own right. In a blog post, McLennan states that he began Missing Persons as a kind of character’s background story for another novel that he intended to write but never finished. Still, Missing Persons is far more than a mere by-product. McLennan’s novel is anything but a linear and straightforward narrative. It comprises a three-page preface and a total of 55 chapters, some of which consist of a single paragraph, and some of which are merely half a page long: "The entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey leading toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, the sense of which fades into the distance." This quotation from Milan Kundera’s 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting serves McLennan as a first epigraph and alerts readers to what lies in store on the pages ahead. In one instance, an entire chapter consists of a single sentence: "Alberta was drowning in her own skin." Alberta is Alberta Jonas, the novel’s teenage protagonist. Newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe, Alberta’s parents name their first child after the Canadian province in which they intend to live: "Her parents were very old, born and married to that place before. The old country. A fiction to her, but a story told with every breath. . . . Tales of Baba Yaga. Alberta, named for their destination, born en route. Her parents arriving on New World soil and giving her breath on a Montreal shore. Two weeks before they moved again." Ironically enough, the Jonas family never makes it as far west as Alberta and settles on the Saskatchewan prairies instead. Missing Persons chronicles Alberta’s life from the age of fourteen to the age of sixteen. In the novel’s first chapter, we encounter Alberta on the day of her father’s funeral. A car accident leaves Alberta, her younger brother Paul, and her mother Emma without a father and husband. At the end of the novel a second death occurs which leads Alberta to abandon the Canadian prairie and seek her fortune elsewhere. The decision to leave ultimately provides Alberta with a larger perspective and a new sense of possibility: "Her map was larger, her geography patently new. She was no longer lost, the rest of the country flat ahead of her in all directions. She took a first step. She could begin." Missing Persons is a nuanced portrait of a vulnerable yet courageous teenage girl. It is also a study of life on the Canadian prairie: "Wind swirling dusty snow. A horizon without end." Images such as these are, of course, reminiscent of the writings of Sinclair Ross and other classic prairie authors. "This isn’t much of a story," Mary, Alberta’s best friend, at one point remarks. Readers of Rob McLennan’s Missing Persons will not interpret this observation as a self-reflexive comment.

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