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One Hand Clapping

by Lise Leroux

Item: The Times of London, March 1998

Reviewer Jane Shilling inspects two novels, Leaving Earth by the Toronto writer Helen Humphreys and One Hand Clapping by the Montreal-born Lise Leroux. They’re both first forays and they have in common their Canadian parentage. Otherwise, nothing. So Shilling writes: “For a young woman thinking of writing a first novel, a move to Canada might be an option worth considering. Out of that country has come, in recent years, a steady flow of excellent fiction, much of it by women.”

There are those who might stickle that the words “steady” and “flow” and “out” devalue the compliment Shilling seems to want to pay. Many of our natural resources are in constant and abundant flow. Oil. Pulp from the paper mills. Maple syrup. But fiction?

Still. If you read reviews or write them, you have to admire the finer shades of Shilling’s opening gambit. The sly filch from Jane Austen, the facetious wit of the appeal for literary exodus, the broadly generous (if vaguely, Englishly condescending) benediction of Canadian fiction.

But if you are a young Englishwoman thinking of writing a novel and, crazy like a quilt, you do move to Canada, you won’t find Lise Leroux.

Leroux lives in England now, just like Steve Lundin, another expatriate Canadian (Winnipeg-born, Toronto-raised), whose first novel, This River Awakens, is the other half of the day’s reviewing business. What are the chances that two first novels by Canadians living in the very same foreign country would appear in the same season? Not very interesting at all. Is it fair to compare two such novels, different as they are? Not a bit. But then could their strangely simultaneous appearance mean that perhaps – well, could it be that the flow of excellent fiction coming out of Canada has been somehow reversed?

Well, not entirely.

One Hand Clapping is a spooky arrangement of overlapping stories set in London, England, in the not-so-far-off future. Leroux’s dystopia is overcrowded and full of threats; it’s a septic city short on some human essentials, joy and ethics notable among them. It’s a place wherein science – especially medical science – is the presiding power. A malevolent one, mainly; like a dog who’s seen too much boot, science is biting back.

The story starts in the company of Marina, a woman in her 30s who’s a little down of heart. Lately she’s taken to picking up men from the subway and bringing them home for sex, but she’s beginning to hate herself for it, and she’s soon willing to try another kind of, um, fellowship.

On television Marina sees a mouse on whose back a human ear is being grown for use in a transplant, decides I could do that, and sets about it, signing herself up at the Hurtigger Institute, where they pay people to grow surplus body parts that can be harvested at a later date. Six pages into the novel, Marina’s got a new hand growing under one of her breasts; four pages more and she’s gone back for a multiple encore, an implantation of 10 extra hands, one of which she becomes particularly friendly with.

Leroux’s cast of central characters is 13 strong (and includes the ear-backed rodent), each of them rating a chapter of their own. More and more, with each new chapter, Leroux meshes these benighted lives together. The meshing works well enough – but on the subject of overcrowding, the cast is probably too large. Several of the main players are instantly, grimly engaging: Estra, who keeps her husband imprisoned inside – inside – her hand; and Wynne, who works in the subway tunnels scraping human skin from the tracks. But some others – there’s just no urgency in them, they feel like they’re doing nothing but supportive duty, a pillar’s work, holding up a part of the story without finding a convincing way into it.

Leroux has a rich imagination and she’s written a novel that quickly absorbs your attention, despite – or perhaps because of – its grisly tendencies. The writing isn’t always as sharp as you’d like – Leroux has a regular tendency towards bad sentences. Maybe what’s most fascinating is that, here, leeside of the millennium, the nasty future it conjures doesn’t seem at all unlikely.

Leroux’s One Hand Clapping and Steve Lundin’s This River Awakens are in fact more alike than they might at first seem to be, which is to say, not at all. Alike not in setting or vision – Lundin’s debut is set in rural Manitoba circa 1971 – but in dark atmospherics. It’s spring, but the sun can’t get through, smoke from unseen fires smudges the air, and there’s a stench of garbage in the wind. In its own way, the fictional town of Middlecross that Lundin renders is as dim, as grim, as environmentally violent as Leroux’s London.

Dim, grim, and violent – these are words that might also serve to describe the childhood into which Lundin inserts his main character, 12- year- old Owen Brand, who’s just arrived in Middlecross with his family. Owen isn’t a bad kid, but as he recalls, years later, it’s “a time and place of discord,” not least because the boy is coming of age, and we all know how traumatic that can be. He’s looking to survive the strains of life at home, he’s looking to outflank his new teacher at school, he’s looking for God.

What he’s not looking for, but finds all the same, along with three friends, is a man’s dead body by the river. The corpse – they don’t know whose it is – has a catalytic effect on Owen and his friends. Indeed, in its non-active way, the body has as much to teach as any breathing adult. Added as a bonus: the body doesn’t inflict the pain other adults inevitably do, willing or not.

This River Awakens is, it has to be said, unrelaxingly earnest (you keep waiting for Owen and his friends to laugh for a while, goof around, but apparently these are 12-year-olds who don’t), but if you can forgive that, you’ll find it to be a powerful piece of work. Lundin writes with penetrating authority about nearly everything he sets his focus on, whether it’s the terrorized existence of a tortured mink or the lonely vigil of an elderly caretaker nobody cares for.

Two new novels aflow, more or less, out of this country. But if the court pleases, the prosecution finds itself wary of drawing any conclusions broader than its own shoulderblades. Nothing about the health of Canadian Literature, the future, what will last, what won’t. It’s like the Australian writer Robert Hughes says: all a review can really do is invite you to the dance.


Reviewer: Stephen Smith

Publisher: Viking


Price: $22.95

Page Count: 342 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-670-87671-2

Released: Feb.

Issue Date: 1998-6

Categories: Fiction: Novels

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