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Isobel Gunn

by Audrey Thomas

To escape, Isobel Gunn is willing to give up everything she has: home, family, identity. Granted, the home, in Scotland’s backward, storm-tossed Orkney Islands, isn’t much. The family’s even less: poor as porridge, father drunk, mother gone mad. Why wouldn’t a young girl with spirit scramble to flee all the squalor, the misery? Why wouldn’t she hack away her hair, bind her breasts, pass herself off as a man to sign on with the Hudson’s Bay Company if it means a new life in the New World?

And so she does. Set in the first decade of the 19th century, Audrey Thomas’s latest novel sees Isobel ship out for the shores of James Bay. And yet a new life doesn’t mean a better one. In Thomas’s telling, Isobel’s life is a tragedy in the making; she leaves behind one kind of desperation only to discover others. Hers is a history of sacrifice, except that for her the sacrifices end up yielding only more pain. While she’s still at sea, she gets pregnant by the only man with whom she shares her secret, after which it’s only a matter of time before she’s revealed and subsequently cast out of the European settlement at Albany Fort.

It’s a harsh, stirring story. A lesser writer might have given in and softened it, allowed Isobel some comfort, maybe even redemption, but Thomas doesn’t, and that gives the novel the deep, satisfying ring of fictional truth. There are real virtues in the way Thomas tells the story, too. In her canny ear for dialogue, for instance, and the way historical detail never feels like research; in her deft depictions of stricken landscapes, Scottish and Canadian both.

What’s perplexing about Isobel Gunn – and this, perhaps, is what keeps it from being a truly great novel – is Thomas’s choice of narrator. For most of the way we’re in the hands of the minister Magnus Inkster, Isobel’s friend and fellow Orkney Islander. He’s a full enough character, it’s not that. If anything, he’s too full. Why not give us Isobel as narrator, or at least the proximity of the third-person? Why do we get Magnus’s re-constructions and observation rather than Isobel herself? Magnus only removes us from Isobel and the fates that deal so cruelly with her. I kept wanting to reach past him and his book-learning, to stay his wringing hands, to allow Isobel to speak for herself.