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Open Arms

by Marina Endicott

Bessie Smith, the narrator of Open Arms, the first novel by Saskatchewan writer and playwright Marina Endicott, is a young woman with some troubling role models. Her father, an award-winning poet, left her and her mother when she was very young to pursue his own selfishly romantic ideals. Her mother, Isabel Everett, is a part-time singer who wanders through relationships and religions, and who temporarily lost custody of Bessie after being arrested on drug charges. Counterbalancing her troubled parents are her grandparents, who raised her in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, and Katherine, her father’s second ex-wife.

Endicott’s novel is a contemporary bildüngsroman, divided into three long sections, with Bessie at ages 17, 20, and 24. The novel’s plot unfurls with a slow, steady pace, allowing one event to follow another without any of the severe compression and magnification or chronological playfulness characteristic of much modern fiction. Endicott shows a sure and skillful hand throughout the book, weaving the lessons that Bessie must absorb into the story with nary a loose stitch. Her instincts fail her only at the novel’s climax, which hinges on a series of timely coincidences to bring together four generations of women into a life-affirming, emotional clutch.

Endicott’s even hand, however, eventually leads to mere flatness, creating an unintended disparity between the texture of the narrative and that of the emotional life of its characters. All of the characters in Open Arms speak in sentences that are complete, apt, and grammatically unimpeachable, and there is very little difference between Bessie Smith’s voice at 17 and that at 24. Scenes given a lengthy build-up are dispatched with journalistic brevity and objectivity, as if they are included only for their thematic usefulness.