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by Anne Simpson

From the very first sentence of Falling, award-winning poet Anne Simpson’s second novel, it’s clear that this will be a story about grief and the constrained living that goes on around it.

On the first page, 17-year-old Lisa drowns in a blameless ATV accident while her brother Damian is asleep close by and her mother, Ingrid, is miles away in Halifax. Both survivors blame themselves. Ten months later, mother and son converge on Ingrid’s childhood home in Niagara Falls – where her blind brother Roger and his son, Elvis, who has an unnamed developmental disability, now live – in the hopes of scattering Lisa’s ashes over the falls.

At first, it seems the setting may be enough to rouse the family from mourning. Soon, however, the combined pressure of unresolved family schisms, Damian’s new love interest – the wise and beautiful Jasmine – and the imminent final goodbye to Lisa begins to pull the characters into a dangerous whirlpool of sorrow.

Nearly every character in Falling has his or her own private grief. Roger, a former daredevil who went over the falls in a barrel, was crushed by his wife’s departure. Jasmine is stalled in Niagara Falls after leaving her Saskatchewan home. Even the man who tried to save Lisa has dark memories of his wife’s death and his son’s institutionalization.

Throughout, Simpson dwells on the minutiae of grief – the things we touch in order to remember, the way our bodies move with sadness. She writes lingeringly, for instance, about the bottles of water and cranberry juice that Ingrid packs before driving to Antigonish to identify her daughter’s body, and the hare that Damian shoots during a lonely trip to a cabin following Lisa’s death.   

This is a poetic and illuminating novel, with a tremendous depth of feeling and a bravely unflinching look at the most painful parts of human lives. Yet with few moments that turn away from the grieving of the past and coping of the present, the misery is often overwhelming. Even the interesting passions that Simpson chooses for her characters – Jasmine, for instance, has an inexplicable fascination with weaving human hair into art pieces – seem obscured by the baggage of the past.

By the book’s climax, it’s hard to rise to the emotional occasion – and that’s a shame, because this taut final sequence is skillfully orchestrated. When Falling closes, none are entirely freed from their grief, as Simpson seems to purposely resist any miraculous healings. Yet throughout, the book seems to ask the question, “Is there life beyond tragedy?” And the answer, it seems, is a cautious “Yes.”


Reviewer: Caroline Skelton

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $32.99

Page Count: 328 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-7710-8090-6

Released: Feb.

Issue Date: 2008-1

Categories: Fiction: Novels