Monday, August 09, 2021

Beth Follett, Instructor: A Novel


Her mother, Rose – how she wails and shouts and tears her clothes when bad news arrives, when any new horror falls. How Rose and her father, Sam, will wail, forced to do the one thing they cannot easily or with pleasure do – wait. In their Swiss German tongue there is a phrase for a wordless thought that arrives in one’s mind, a sudden flare, an impulse not yet formed. One would say of this flare: There is a bird in it. The bird comes to her: Go. She moves quickly, involuntarily. She assembles things one needs for a brief stay at a summer lake: cottons, linens, black lingerie, a sweater, folds these into a black leather suitcase. On the drive north, thought does not exist. When a thought presses in, she refuses it, though how she does so she cannot say. The atmosphere in the car is the pressure of resistance in June sun.

Newfoundland writer and Pedlar Press founder/publisher Beth Follett’s long-awaited follow up to her debut novel, Tell It Slant (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2001), is Instructor: A Novel (St. John’s NL: Breakwater Books, 2021). Through a prose concurrently lyric and lush and perfectly precise, Follett’s novel opens as Ydessa Bloom responds to the death of her husband, Roger. Roger, an “experienced pilot,” dies when his Cessna crashes into an Ontario lake, and Ydessa steps away from the whole of her life in urban Toronto to spend a couple of weeks in a cabin on that lake; a couple of weeks, which turns into three months. While there, she interacts with three individuals on their own trajectories, including eight-year-old Henry Rattle, who grieves the loss of his mother, and the seeming-apathy of his distracted, absent father.

Moving through an accumulation of short sections and shifting between characters, Instructor sustains a dark mood that struggles to right itself, even through the onset of grief, giving in and giving up. Ydessa contends with the absence and refusal of what comes next; and then there is Henry Rattle, a boy who appears weightless, but feels the weight of everything, quietly compelled to gravitate towards this grieving stranger in the lakeside rental. Instructor writes on grief and attempting to sidestep it, which instead forces Ydessa to be swept away towards something else. Follett’s prose is remarkable, composed in propulsive sweeps and thoughtful asides, exploring a vast interiority of uncertainty, fragility and the body.

            She renews her glad friendship in silence, in sunlight. This is how it is. Barri controls the boat, Ydessa controls her tongue, Henry draws the rolling patterns of the fluctuating world. When Roger was alive. The sentence won’t come alive. It goes nowhere. Always been alone is quite possibly the most pompous thought she’s ever had. Anguish over her sustained indolence – could it shift, could indolence be redefined as patience? Has there ever been a time when she was free not to act? Must a woman who contrives not to act punish herself with the visible, tangible world?

Knowing how busy she has been producing titles through Pedlar Press, it isn’t unusual for such a long break between titles, and, according to the notes in her acknowledgements, Instructor was composed across a stretch of some fourteen years. One could also mention her poetry chapbook through Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press, the now long out-of-print A Thinking Woman Sleeps With Monsters [see my review of such here], which appeared in 2014. Might that suggest the possibility of a full-length collection down the road, another project of multiple-years?

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