43.2

Look After Her

A girl with part blue shadow over the right side of her face, grabbing on to a swinging rope
By 
Hannah Brown
Inanna Publications, 448 pages, $22.95
2020
Reviewed by 
Annick MacAskill

Packed with action and intrigue, and impeccably paced, Hannah Brown’s debut novel Look After Her is a gripping, accomplished piece of feminist historical fiction that provides insight into the depths of our connections and the limitations on knowing one another, even in the most intimate of relationships. The novel tells the story of Hedy and Susannah, two teenage sisters living in early twentieth-century Vienna. Shortly after the death of their parents, the sisters are kidnapped and held captive in a brothel. The pair eventually manage to escape, and the novel follows the young women over the subsequent years as they cross Europe, separating only to come together again, finding themselves along the way in milieus both luxurious and perilous.
     As a piece of historical fiction, the novel bears the marks of thorough research without overwhelming the reader with detail and explanation. Brown’s prose is consistently fluid, and the novel’s various settings—Austria, Italy, and England between the two World Wars—are well conveyed, making for an engrossing reading experience. Soon after their escape from the brothel, Hedy and Susannah find themselves practicing psychodrama, a version of group psychotherapy founded by the Romanian psychiatrist Jacob Moreno, who is summed up by Hedy in a passage marked by the author’s subtle, dry humour and attention to detail:

But therapy had moved to the suburbs as Moreno had taken a bride and his practice to Bad Voslau. I missed the focus on physical movement and talking companionably afterwards with the others. I saw a photo of him in the newspaper. He was sitting in front of a wall covered in ivy. A good suit, but the trousers needed lengthening. You could see the top of his boots.

     The story moves along at a steady clip, creating an effect that is almost cinematic (Brown is also a screenwriter), bringing to mind the enthralling, woman-centred historical fiction of the American writer Amy Bloom, author of Away and White Houses. While I found myself quickly adjusting to the plot and the novel’s narrative voice, I was caught unaware by a well-crafted twist in the story. Without going into detail, I will say this: Look After Her’s unexpected turn triggers a renewed interest in Hedy and Susannah’s sororal relationship, complicating the reader’s initial impression of the two. e elegance of the ensuing plot and character development bears the mark of an exceptionally talented prose writer and world builder. I look forward to reading more from Brown, who in her debut has already accomplished something remarkable, revisiting at once a familiar setting (early twentieth-century Europe) and a familiar plot point (the treasured yet fraught relationship between two siblings), while crafting something entirely her own.

Annick MacAskill’s poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies across Canada and abroad. Her debut, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and shortlisted for the J.M. Abraham Award. Her second collection will appear with Gaspereau in 2020. She lives in Halifax. 

 

Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian)

Dark blue cover with image of an armadillo, heart, squid, and lipstick
By 
Hazel Jane Plante
Metonymy Press, 196 pages, $18.95
2019
Reviewed by 
Yu-Sen Zhou

It is the simplest sentences that devastate in the debut novel from Hazel Jane Plante. “Vivian was my favourite person,” the narrator writes about her best friend, unrequited lover, and fellow femme trans conspirator in the wake of her sudden passing. It’s more a whisper than a declaration, and we understand that this book is more than anything, for Vivian.
     On the surface, Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) poses as an encyclopedia of characters and places from an obscure TV show that Vivian loved called Little Blue. At other times, it reads like autofiction, documenting the narrator’s gender transition and private thoughts. These narratives fundamentally triangulate into a third story about beauty, love, and the grieving motions one goes through in the face of an absurd loss.
     The novel, as a meditation on reading and writing practice, diffracts—the optical
term that describes the slight bending of
light around an object—grief. Like the
mourning narratives of Sigrid Nunez’s The
 Friend or Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, Little
 Blue Encyclopedia addresses the loss of a lover like a psychoanalysis, spiralling inwards and downwards to peel back layers of her relationship to Vivian. We follow the unnamed narrator as she advances through the stages of grief and makes progress on encyclopedic entries from A to Z. We understand that the impulse to document is a form of self-soothing when she works on the next entry or faithfully accounts for Vivian’s belongings in between writing: “Some furniture; a sewing machine. A wardrobe that included several pieces she had hand tailored. A beloved bicycle, an ancient laptop.”
   There is a metanarrative here, for just as the narrator wishes to remember Vivian not in how she died, but by the things she loved (Little Blue) and the way she lived (Vivian slyly tells her during a long night of sharing insecurities that her perfume is called ’De ant Beauty’), Plante, rather than making a spectacle of queer and trans pain, makes the brutal tender. The question of how Vivian died is never asked, though the narrator acknowledges that we may ask. That Plante refuses to dwell on the how is one of the principle gifts of Little Blue Encyclopedia. Seated at Vivian’s computer one day, the narrator reflects that “somehow Viv had done it . . . to turn pain into beauty.” With her debut novel, Plante has accomplished something of the same. 

 

Yu-Sen Zhou is a writer and scholar pursuing an MA in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She divides her time between Toronto and New York. 

 

Sonnet’s Shakespeare

A picture of Shakespeare's face censored in colourful pixels
By 
Sonnet L'Abbé
McClelland and Stewart, 160 pages, $19.95
2019
Reviewed by 
Natasha Ramoutar

Sonnet L’Abbé’s third poetry collection is an incredibly ambitious project that assimilates William Shakespeare’s poetry, and it does not disappoint. Letter by letter, L’Abbé inserts her own language into his poetry, erasing and engulfing his words into her own. While the original sonnets are spoken over, Shakespeare’s voice is never entirely silenced. The Bard continues to haunt the work in the echo of each line.
     L’Abbé uses this form to explore both her oppression and privilege. She grapples not only with being mixed race and coming from people who have been colonized, but also with being a settler living on Indigenous territories. Even from the first sonnet of the collection, she points to her own privilege in “the angloculture to which I am inseparably grafted.” She further examines settler colonialism and the idea of the “good, well-behaved immigrant” trope in XI: “Comfortable settlers choose not to know their own administration; I’m an ungrateful, hateful, ethnocentric immigrant if I defy the tolerance story.” Troughout the collection, L’Abbé often writes bluntly and directly, forcing the reader to engage with their own relationship to settler colonialism and the myth of multiculturalism. This collection grapples with many intersecting issues, taking a critical look at feminism, environmentalism, and more.
     While many of us who went through a colonial English school system may think of the sonnet as dense and impenetrable, Sonnet L’Abbé’s collection is approachable. Troughout these pages, L’Abbé brings in a number of modern markers that feel like old friends. In VIII, she asks “what music would sadly, sweetly sound your last zeptosecond.” She then provides a spectacular mixtape upon the page where “A Tribe Called Red will give sway to Bowie,” ending in the crescendo of “There’s love if you want it, don’t sound like no sonnet, sang Kuti, sang Bjork, sang e Verve.” Similarly, CIX explores Pokémon and transitions: “As easy as Meowth might ripen from money scrounger to jewel-foreheaded Persian, our transformation fromimmaturity to something more powerful.” At the end of the collection, you will find a list of entry points, with touchpoints like “only-minority-in-the-room,” “bouncing yuh backside,” and “raccoon nation.”
     By displacing William Shakespeare’s work, Sonnet L’Abbé questions the literary canon in which he and other dead white men are heralded as the foundation for English literature. She confronts and dismantles the idea that some voices are more valuable than others, carving space for marginalized writers in a complex and multi- faceted way. Sonnet’s Shakespeare, an act of literary patricide, is a collection that is necessary to place in our literary canon today.

 

Natasha Ramoutar is an Indo-Guyanese writer by way of Scarborough (Ganatsekwyagon) at the east side of Toronto. She has been published in The Unpublished City II, PRISM, Room, Living Hyphen and more. Her first book of poetry Bittersweet will be published in 2020 by Mawenzi House. 

 

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    In this issue:

    Manahil Bandukwala, Dessa Bayrock, Megan Beadle, Brandi Bird, lue boileau, Rachel Burlock, Justina Chong, Mollie Cronin, Marilyn Dumont, Edzi'u, Ashleigh Giffen, katia hernandez velasco, erica hiroko, Jessica Johns, Shaelyn Johnston, Yume Kitasei, Mica Lemiski, Jessie Loyer, Annick MacAskill, Callista Markotich, Sonali Menezes, Kai Minosh Pyle, Natasha Ramoutar, Carmina Ravanera, Rohsni Riar, Jessica Rose, Rowan Siah, Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch, Kelly S. Thompson, Arielle Twist, Phoebe Wang, Yu-Sen Zhou

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