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by Anne Fleming

Good novels about Toronto are hard to come by. In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje is one, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is another. Anne Fleming’s publishers would like to promote this first novel as a member of that cohort, describing its overarching theme as “loss of innocence for a quartet of characters and for Toronto, a complex city evolving during a pivotal decade into an international urban centre.”

But the complexity of Toronto resists fictional treatment in this case. The city’s multifarious elements combine into a blandness that the author, Anne Fleming, is not really interested in deconstructing. Her quartet of characters, all female, live in the northeast quadrant of the old 1970s city, in the solid, square, bricked houses of Lawrence Park, a section of town that even today has more in common with well-heeled neighbourhoods in other large cities of the western world than it does with the downtown edginess of King Street or the sweeping multiracial suburbs of Markham and Woodbridge.

Instead, this novel is about intense personal relationships, gritty and grinding in their particularity but resonant of universal themes. The Riggs are the central family in question. There is father Glenn, an airline pilot; mother Rowena, a troubled do-gooder; son Jay; and two daughters, Carol and Glynnis, whose complicated sibling rivalries form the core of the story. The males, frankly, are nothing but backdrop and could just as well not be there.

The fourth female in the quartet with Rowena and her daughters is the lonely and unfortunately named Beryl Balls, “Miss Balls” to the children and “Ballsie” in their cruel childhood games about her. Brownies figure rather largely in this story, and Miss Balls had been Rowena’s troop leader when she was a girl. So the novel is the nesting place for three generations of Canadian women, with experiences ranging from First World War nursing in France to women’s ordination in the church to punk-rock anarchism in Toronto garages.

The anomaly in the Riggs family, at first sight, appears to be Carol, an albino with white hair, thick glasses, and, as her sister says, a squishy appearance. The chapters she narrates contain all the surly sadness of the unlovely. She lies on her bed, tears running into her ears, with her old teddy bear fake-punching her: “Silly Carol. Stupid Carol. Stupid, stupid, Carol.” She envies Glynnis, her younger sibling, who is smart, funny, athletic, and popular. When they are eight and seven, respectively, and horsing around at Brownies one night in the local church basement, Carol has a moment of unseeing rage at her sister and manages to push an upright piano onto her leg.

From that moment on, the family contains two anomalies: Carol the albino and Glynnis the cripple. Although her leg is saved by miraculous modern surgery, it is misshapen and she will always walk with a limp. The balance of the novel (and it’s a very long one) concerns itself with the aftermath of this event: Carol’s guilt and resentment, Glynnis’s resentment and self-loathing, Rowena’s guilt (she was the leader of the Brownie troop and had been out of the room when the accident occurred).

Beryl Balls provides an intriguing counterpoint to all this angst, having been brought up in an earlier age when the values of the incipient Girl Guides movement actually meant something: “They wanted to do their bit, they were going to do their bit, and nobody was going to stop them.”

But her story also contains the kind of rejection and hurt all humankind is prey to. Her father, furious at the idea that any daughter of his would sign up to nurse in the Great War, disowns her. And her nursing roommate, Miss Boothson (Bootsie and Ballsie the two girls inevitably become) perishes aboard the Llandovery Castle when it is sunk by the Germans, just when Beryl is beginning to acknowledge deep physical and emotional feelings for her. There will be no other love in Miss Balls’s life, but her clandestine passion is mirrored many decades later in Glynnis’s modern-day groping with her own sexuality.

Fleming’s honesty as a writer is extraordinary. She will follow a human thought or feeling as far as it goes, not cutting it off or shaping it for dramatic or humorous effect. This clearly contributes to the length and heft of the novel, but it sometimes feels like too much. Fleming succeeds in interesting the reader in each of her characters (Rowena the least perhaps), but there’s a limit to how much we want to know even about people who interest us a great deal.

Nonetheless, Fleming’s talents are clearly on display here, and her decision to situate her young girls in a stream of female continuity running back to the beginning of the last century is bold and thought-provoking.


Reviewer: Bronwyn Drainie

Publisher: Raincoast Books


Price: $32.95

Page Count: 480 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-55192-831-0

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 2005-10

Categories: Fiction: Novels