Gayla Reid wins awards – the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Journey Prize, the Marian Engel Award, to name a few – and deservedly so. Her writing is lush and highly charged; her characters fully realized; her settings steeped in politics and history.
In Come from Afar, Reid tells the epic story of Clancy, a woman who has done more living in her first few decades than most of us will in an entire lifetime: a childhood in an abandoned mining town, a disastrous marriage to the brother of the man she truly loved, years of bare survival in a fishing village, and a harrowing stint as a nurse with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). Throughout, Clancy, though sometimes foolish and sometimes cruel, is a heroine worth admiring.
Reid brings to the page the passion of Clancy’s times, blending the horrors of war with a kind of lyrical beauty, as in her description of “horses dead in the square in the July sun, big bellies rearing up, their legs stiff in front of them, strangely useless.” The highly descriptive writing sometimes veers into preciousness, and one lovemaking scene coyly describes the couple as “swimmers out in the breakers, straining, brimming,” and Clancy “arching into the deep of him,” leaving the reader to wonder when the bed turned into an ocean. But these affected moments are rare.
While the Spanish Civil War setting is fascinating and complex, the novel is not a thinly veiled history lesson. There are no didactic explanations (although the author provides very useful historical notes). Even as discord rages all around her, Clancy’s narration is not about the war, but about herself: an interesting woman living in interesting times.