Quill and Quire

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A Game to Play on the Tracks

by Lorna Jackson

Twice in this vivid, pyrotechnic novel, women walk into knitting shops that are heaped and hung like Aladdin’s cave with skeins – brightly dyed, flecked, handspun, synthetic. Proprietresses pull patterns from drawers, dispense yarns and dreams. Lorna Jackson’s first novel is like one of those shops, packed with voice and story, images that catch the skin.

It opens with Arden, a pregnant West Coast country singer manquée. She drinks too much and isn’t always attentive to danger. She and her husband, Nichol, reach such a stage of domestic toxicity that she takes off with her infant son in an ill-considered attempt to combine motherhood with a career on the bar circuit. Nichol has Arden’s dog euthanized and planted under a rosebush; he’d do the same to Arden if he could. When disaster overtakes her and she returns home, Nichol’s coldheartedness does her in. She launches herself off a cliff, Thelma and Louise-style. Nichol grieves, not for Arden but for his own failures of grace. His son grows up neglected and indulged, watched over by a series of women.

Jackson’s nine years as a bass player and singer and her day job teaching writing at the University of Victoria are equally in evidence here. Her prose rolls and rollicks, smart and smart-alecky, often with a sting in its tail. She passes the narrative baton from one woman in Nichol’s life to another – wife, girlfriend, neighbour, sister-in-law, and builder – and finally to his son. She mixes in fey extracts from a child’s encyclopedia, The Book of Wonder, builds in family history and West Coast mythology. Several viscerally horrible things happen, but it’s the asides and bit players that haunt: Della, the builder, a hungry, generous spirit, is a novel in herself. In the end it’s not entirely clear what this novel is about or what it wants to say, but it has everything life has and then some – love, death, sex, hope, and Hank Williams.