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Machine Without Horses

by Helen Humphreys

In a 2017 Maclean’s magazine interview about her non-fiction title The Ghost Orchard, which blended meticulous research and historical fact with a few dalliances into fiction, Helen Humphreys described how her writing had morphed into something she found difficult to define. “I suppose you could call it creative non-fiction, and rather focused on the natural world, which is what I’m most interested in reading these days,” she said. “But my books also include some fiction, so they’re difficult to pinpoint. So call what I’m writing a hybrid.”

Though Machine Without Horses is billed as fiction, the first half of the book – narrated in the first person by an unnamed writer at work on a new novel – reads very much like Humphreys working out the proper way to craft the story she is in the process of writing. There are parallels between author and character: Humphreys’ 2013 memoir, Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother, along with her public disclosure of losing a number of close friends or family members (including a dog) in rapid succession, mirrors that of the narrator – “My Brother. My father. Three close friends. (Not in that order.) (My dog, who, I know, is not the same as a person, but thirteen years …).” Both author and narrator are single writers in their 50s who live in Kingston, Ontario. Both are enamoured of stories connected to the natural world and, in particular, the under-acknowledged stories of women. But we’re never entirely sure whether Humphreys herself is the narrator or the extent to which what we are reading is fictionalized literary memoir.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the narrator is meant to be the author herself or a stand-in. We are given an insider’s view of the thought processes involved in the early stages of working on a new book in the context of working through grief. This approach will either intrigue readers or bore them entirely, depending on their level of curiosity about the craft of writing. Humphreys’s narrator tells us of her latest muse, Megan Boyd, an early 20th-century Scot who gained international renown (including the personal acquaintance of Prince Charles) for her salmon-fishing lures. After stumbling upon Boyd’s obituary from 2001, the narrator’s interest is piqued, and she begins researching Boyd’s life, even going so far as to learn how to tie a couple of lures.

Readers are given much of Boyd’s biography – from her birth in Surrey, England, to her move to the Scottish highlands at age three and an introduction (at age 12) by her fishing-guide father to a fly-maker that led to her lifelong vocation. Humphreys also provides exposition about local history and geography, the spawning habits of salmon, and the development of various types of lures.

As we follow along with the narrator, we are also gifted with philosophical ponderings about the effects of loss, the companionship of dogs, and the writing life. A confessional tone emerges: “Starting a book is like starting a love affair. It demands full and tireless attention or feelings could change. Commitment takes time, and so there must be a rush of passion at the beginning.”

While in theory Megan Boyd has the makings of an interesting character, Humphreys appears to lack the required passion to really make her story sing. The narrator tests a few storylines for Boyd, fictionalizing her life and imaginatively trying out different lovers. (A man? A woman? Both?) in the hope of finding an emotional hook on which to hang her tale. In life, Boyd was described as “eccentric” – born in 1915, poorly educated though always curious, she lived alone in a spartan cottage, dressed in men’s shirts and ties paired with tweed skirts and stout boots. While she spent all available daylight hours in her workshop crafting world-famous lures (with only a succession of dogs and prospective customers for company), at night she frequented country dances (where she primarily and expertly danced the male parts). The main question Humphreys addresses is how to take the details of this simple life and make it something readers will want to know more about.

When, in the second half of the book, Humphreys shifts completely into fiction, renaming Boyd Ruth and giving her a female love interest, it feels very much like we’ve already read this story. And, in essence, we have. By plotting out her ideas in the first portion of the book, Humphreys denudes the second half of any sense of immediacy or mystery. The fact that the narrator of the first part also disappears, taking the threads of her own story with her and leaving the reader with a complete lack of resolution, is also disappointing.

While Humphreys’s previous works of “hybrid” writing have been successful, Machine Without Horses undermines itself from the start. The author’s prose is as smooth and enchanting as always, but in this instance, choosing one genre or the other would have benefited both stories.