Eleven years after the end of the Second World War, Enman Greene waits patiently for his 12-year-old daughter’s music lesson to end. It’s her birthday, and he has decided at lunch to finally tell her the story of her deceased mother, Una. So begins Halifax writer Carol Bruneau’s elegant fifth novel.
We are drawn further back in time to 1943 and the fictional Nova Scotia village of Barrein, a place convincingly portrayed by the author as little more than a sleepy backwater. Enman and Una, recently married, have left behind their lives and jobs in the city and returned to Enman’s childhood home to care for his elderly, ailing mother. It soon becomes clear the newlyweds, who have hastily come together under conditions of wartime uncertainty, really don’t know each other at all.
When Enman’s mother dies in early summer, Una is relieved: “Tending the sick was not what Una had imagined signing a marriage license would mean. She was a teacher, not a nurse.” Having spent years of her earlier life caring for her own dying mother, Una’s feeling is understandable. She eagerly anticipates returning to Halifax, expecting that Enman will resume his job at the bank and hoping that she will be allowed to teach again despite her sudden dismissal from her last post following an affair with a married fellow teacher (who managed, unsurprisingly, to retain his job).
The scandalous details of how she lost her position are not something Una chooses to share with her husband until later in the novel, at which point the revelation further shakes the foundation of their troubled marriage. But her options are few as a woman of her time, and Bruneau is careful to clarify why Una makes certain decisions, even the choice to deceive her husband. Her chances of being hired to teach again are slim, given that even “in wartime the school board enforced the rule that no married women could teach classes.” Nevertheless, at 37, with 12 years of teaching to her credit, she longs for more activity and excitement than the tiny town of Barrein can provide.
Enman, on the other hand, seems to be settling happily into small-town life, associating freely with the eccentric and prying locals whom Una tolerates but cannot bring herself to befriend. But Enman has his own problems. A year before he met and married Una, he was in the merchant marines, serving aboard a tanker that was hit by enemy fire “within sight of Halifax Harbour.” There are suspicions about German U-boats in the waters off the coast of Atlantic Canada, and crew members referred to as “Jerries” coming ashore – a detail that turns out to be not insignificant to the fate of Enman and Una’s relationship.
The explosion of Enman’s ship spared some of its crew, but Enman’s best friend did not survive and Enman himself was injured. The horror of the sinking haunts him still, a memory made palpable by Bruneau’s mastery of descriptive language: “A rolling field of fire, the sea had been that night. Torched bodies bobbing up, too many bodies to count.” To ease his anxiety, Enman drinks heavily and turns to music – his true passion. Una, however, has very little patience for either of these diversions.
As the divide between Enman and Una widens, it seems the only thing that might save their relationship is a child. While Enman is initially hesitant, he quickly warms to the idea of fatherhood. Una, however, becomes completely despondent during and after her pregnancy. By emphasizing the deepening contempt Una feels for what she perceives as Enman’s weakness, as well as Enman’s inability to understand the source of his wife’s unhappiness, Bruneau propels the narrative to its inevitable outcome.
“I didn’t really know your mum, not very well,” Enman tells his daughter at her birthday lunch. “Not the way I wish I had. Not the way I should have.” All these years later, he has reached a point at which he has reconciled with the past. He is now capable of reflecting on how much he has learned “about love and something of the need not to cling to your ideas of what love means but to be willing at times to let these ideas go.”
A Circle on the Surface is a quietly brilliant novel driven not by action but by close observation and insight into character. Against the backdrop of war and its impact on her protagonists, Bruneau presents two people, evidently mismatched and equally flawed, who are both at crucial moments in their lives. They make poor choices – Una particularly – and the results are devastating. But Bruneau is careful not to cast judgment. These characters inspire only sympathy.
The novel’s title derives from a biblical passage quoted in the book’s epigraph: “He has marked out a circle on the surface of the deep as the boundary of light and darkness.” This imagery finely captures the feeling of this story, the sense that there is a definitive line between light and dark, seen and unseen, what we know about one another and what we never will.