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If Clara

by Martha Baillie

ReviewsSeptember_IfClara_CoverMartha Baillie’s sixth novel is a metafictional story told from the points of view of four characters: Clara, a reclusive, mentally ill writer; Julia, a curator and Clara’s sister, who questions Clara’s sanity; Maurice, Julia’s friend, who flies ultralight aircraft; and Daisy, a writer and editor in her 50s. In clean prose made buoyant with whimsy and allegory, Baillie tells of the bonds between sisters, daughters, and mothers, between friends, and between lovers of literature. If Clara is ultimately an intergenerational novel whose deeply felt characters speak to the universality of suffering while raising challenging questions about entitlement.

As with Baillie’s novel The Shape I Gave You, this new book begins with a mysterious package sent to a stranger. Daisy is bedridden with a broken leg and receives a manuscript from Clara, who yearns for others to understand her suffering. The manuscript, called Don’t Get Me Wrong, is about a Syrian refugee named Kamar who slowly goes insane after arriving in Toronto. Clara entrusts this material to Daisy because she admires her work, but the manuscript is not meant to be edited. Clara issues ultimatums: Daisy must assume authorship by publishing the story under the Syrian name F.H. Homsi.

Baillie’s novel speaks not only to the gift of literature as catharsis (for Clara) and redemption (for Daisy), but also to the timely tension around appropriation in the contemporary literary landscape. Clara tells Daisy: “If I’d written about me, you wouldn’t have cared. But a Syrian refugee? That’ll sell, you thought.” Daisy replies: “If Kamar had not been Syrian, I would have believed in her suffering, and cared.”

Although the characters are written in the first person, Baillie’s mastery distinguishes each voice. Even the neat and sentimental conclusion offers solace as the characters’ complexity resonates beyond the page. Like Muriel Barbery and Enrique Vila-Matas, writers who are steeped in eccentric characters and literary metafiction across generations, Baillie’s novel will appeal to many and please the literary-minded too.