Sunday, March 11, 2012

Mondays on the Margins: The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder

From the publisher: "Juliet Friesen is ten years old when her family moves to Nicaragua. It is 1984, the height of Nicaragua's post-revolutionary war, and the peace-activist Friesens have come to protest American involvement. In the midst of this tumult, Juliet's family lives outside of the boundaries of ordinary life. They've escaped, and the ordinary rules don't apply. Threat is pervasive, danger is real, but the extremity of the situation also produces a kind of euphoria, protecting Juliet's family from its own cracks and conflicts. 

When Juliet's younger brother becomes sick with cancer, their adventure ends abruptly. The Friesens return to Canada only to find that their lives beyond Nicaragua have become the war zone. One by one, they drift from each other, and Juliet grows to adulthood, pulled between her desire to live a free life like the one she remembers in Nicaragua, and her desire to build for her own children a life more settled than her parents could provide. 

With laser-sharp prose and breathtaking insight, these stories herald Carrie Snyder as one of Canada's most prodigiously talented writers."


I can't find a way into this review.


How about this? My ARC says 'a stunning new novel-in-stories' on the front and the back (I assume the actual published copy has the same but I'm not sure). About four chapters/stories in, I wondered why they had called it a novel-in-stories, since to me it seemed like, well, a novel, and I didn't really think any of the chapters would work especially well as a stand-alone story. Then, nearer to the end, I read a chapter and realized I had, in fact read it as a stand-alone story and thought it was fine. But I still think the whole works better as a novel, and my reading of that story would have been enhanced by the backstory and the depth of the rest of them.


As a novel, it's very good. A lot of it was almost like having memories of things I never actually experienced - it was that vivid. You can feel the suffocating heat and taste the dust of Nicaragua. I actually winced at many moments of Juliet's searingly clear gaze; she sees her parents, their details and slightest gestures and motives they hide even from themselves, with painful clarity, even while lacking a more mature understanding of them. It made me wary of the gaze of my own children for days.


It's hard to write children well. It's often not entirely enjoyable to read when an author accomplishes it. I felt almost trapped in Juliet's world, the helplessness and bewilderment and lack of control, with moments of exhilarating freedom and strangeness. Juliet's parents are not the parents of my -- I don't know, my generation? my circle? my general knowledge? -- the parents who think carefully about how everything they do affects their children. These parents are out to change the world and the children are just along for the ride, until one of them gets cancer, and then he becomes the focus. Snyder avoids the temptation to make them simply misguided zealots, although there are definitely hints of that; they're just people, flawed and idealistic and in over their heads.


This is not, on the whole, a happy family. It's hard not to feel for Gloria at the moments where she's left to look after three children in a third-world country while her husband rides around on a motorbike raising consciousness and getting close to young, attractive comrades. The most painfully empathetic moment for me, though, is when Juliet, an avid reader, after pestering her mother for days to take her to the library, finally gets there and realizes that all of the books are in Spanish: "She can't read this book. She can't read any of the books in this library. It is like staggering through a desert towards what looks like a pool of clean, clear water and discovering as you kneel to drink that cupped in your hands is sand, that you are washing your face in a pool of sand." At this point, when Gloria "huffs a small laugh" at Juliet's distress, I felt actual hatred for her. 


No one emerges as a good guy here, though. There's not a lot to leaven the weight of this story, but that's not a bad thing.

Memorable quotes:


"Juliet and Keith rattle around the open truck bed like loose teeth, amazed and elated by all that's here to be seen. Their mother, Gloria, hammers on the glass and tells them, 'Get down!' Baby Emmanuel hammers too, but Bram, their father, waves expansively out of the open window. He feels as they do: Look at this."


"At home in Indiana, Gloria was just her mother...But here, in this strange city, Juliet glimpses the stranger Gloria could become, giddy in her jubilation, separate and apart from her children; hardly a mother at all."


"She returns to the book, picks it up, but an empty restlessness chokes her at the hollow of her neck, where she wants to swallow but cannot. The sensation unspins itself like a cape whirling around her body, envelops her; thins the words on the page, wrings from her the ability to feel.     When she's older she'll know the word for it: desolation."


"Juliet is going to tell a story. She knows the rules, the five Ws, five sister witches who must be beguiled into gathering and pouring out their tinctures and their powders, lest the story emerge from the pot deformed, unbreathing, lest it bubble until it is burnt away, stillborn. Magic. It's as good as anything for explaining why one tale comes out for good and another does not. Effort, though a fine starting place, is not the half of it."


Disclaimer: I was sent an Advance Reading Copy of this book by House of Anansi Press for review purposes. Opinions are my own. 

4 comments:

StephLove said...

Sounds interesting. I like a book that creates a world that feels so real it's like you're going somewhere when you sit down with it. The book that did that for me most vividly in recent years was Susana Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

This sounds like a read I'm not sure I could get into. The novel-in-stories descriptor reminds me of The Sisters Brothers, which was written as a novel, but read more like a (fantastic) series of short stories about the same characters. I wonder if this is becoming a thing.

Nicole said...

Hmm. I don't know. This sounds a bit too realistically sad for me. But I do like short stories...so maybe if I read it like that? I just read Room and I can't read another sad child book right now...but maybe later!

Lady Mama said...

It sounds interesting but the kind of thing that pulls too much at the heartstrings for me.