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Diamond: A Memoir of 100 Days

by Dawn Rae Downton

In her second book, Diamond, Nova Scotia writer Dawn Rae Downton has paired two themes that are popular with memoirists: homecoming and bereavement. It is to her credit that much of this narrative feels fresh and original. The work succeeds, in fact, by seeming not to be concerned with theme. There are no grand symmetries here – just events coinciding, lives intersecting and diverging.

Downton is a Newfoundlander by birth, and the story of her mother’s outport childhood was the basis for her first book, Seldom. But Downton has lived enough of her life in Nova Scotia to have forged connections there, and when she moves back after two years in Vancouver, it is a deliberate and hopeful return. The title of her memoir is the name of the community where, with a male companion identified only as “B,” she buys an old farmstead and attempts to make a new start as a country dweller.

Soon after arriving, Downton learns that her dearest friend, Carol, has terminal cancer. The book’s subtitle, A Memoir of 100 Days, refers to the cruelly short time between diagnosis and death. That’s the size of the slice of life that is offered in these pages. There are anecdotes and reminiscences from the past, but mainly we share the author’s sense of being suspended in the present as she tries to minimize her dying friend’s suffering. The meaning and the outcome of this homecoming remain unknowable.

Sometimes Downton seems to be stalling, pursuing tangents that show us more research than experience. She makes a stronger impression when she recounts the mundane aspects of her life in this period: interpreting diagnostic imaging reports from the hospital, filing a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons, dabbling in palliative pharmacology. This is the real stuff, made readable by a natural and engaging prose style.

Downton finally rejects spiritual as well as medical means of glossing over death. She’s angry, and she admits it. Similarly, she banishes any romantic notions of life in rural Nova Scotia, finding there a culture of fatalism and negligence. She dislikes the bootlegging, the clearcut logging, and especially the hunting. Fair enough. But in her portrayal of a community that is marginal in every way, Downton occasionally resorts to stereotyping. Readers may begin to wonder why she came to this place when she harbours such contempt for its people.