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Book Reviews

Our Lady of the Lost and Found

by Diane Schoemperlen

For 15 years, Kingston, Ontario’s Diane Schoemperlen has used formal pranks to reveal an imagination as quick and associative as a hummingbird’s wing. Her novel, In the Language of Love, was a long – and deft – word association test; her Governor General’s Award-winning story collection, Forms of Devotion, played pictures off of words and probed spirituality. Schoemperlen rejects prescriptions for storytelling and gets charged by fictive possibilities. This directive – to let caprice drive the story anywhere else but here – means her books will endure.
Despite the glimmering facets to admire and emulate in her previous work, the following paragraph from Our Lady of the Lost and Found, her second novel, suggests I am either the best or the worst person to probe the new book’s merits. These lines come right after a scene break and announce an important moment at the end of an early chapter:
“Although I was mostly of two minds about the whole issue of God, I had to admit that, in my heart of hearts, I wanted very much to believe. Not surprisingly, I was also of two minds on that Monday in April when I first met the Virgin Mary. On the one hand, I figured there was a reasonably good chance that I had lost my mind altogether. On the other hand, I felt as if I had known her all my life. And in many ways, I had.”

The uncertainty principle
The novel is narrated by a woman who purports to be a making-it writer, who claims to have had a nice visit from Mary; Mary made her promise to write this novel. But not 50 pages into it, I am asked to care about a writer who doesn’t care enough about her writing. The paragraph is a cliché stratum. It contains only one sharpened word – Virgin. Sentences this lax occur throughout the book, though not usually stacked quite so high.
God. Mary. Belief. These, too, are not topics I savour. I have been a heathen Anglican since St. Mary’s Sunday School forgot to tell me about the picnic. My gods have ridden a bumpy continuum with Davy Jones of the Monkees at one end, mop-headed Steve Nash in the middle, Rachel Carson at the other. Those dubious icons don’t make me spiritually illiterate. I am, though, bored when abstract questions are asked, insufficiently clarified, and then asked again.
So if you think a critic should have empathy for an author’s vision, I’m the worst person. If you think an outsider sees more clearly, I am ideal. Schoemperlen’s narrator would prefer it expressed this way: forget either/or; I am both best and worst.
In theme, the novel tackles the supine binary of fact/fiction and adds physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (aka the observer effect, wherein any experiment is spoiled by the presence of the experimenter). For Schoemperlen, once a writer begins to tell a story, the story is changed, and it becomes impossible to decide fact or fiction.
This is the perfect principle to explain the world’s history of Mary sightings. The novel’s narrator, following her own pleasant week with Mary (they breakfast, nap, house clean, shop, chat), researches other worldwide and historical visitations, and the novel’s core comprises samples of the most useful to her true and not true theory. In the book’s acknowledgments, Schoemperlen swears her visitation stories – except her narrator’s – “are based on actual documented accounts.” The novel becomes a persuasive essay on the continuing existence of Mary, of the world’s – women’s especially – need for her intermittence.
Even bland diction and cliché towers become crucial facets of Schoemperlen’s narrator – a mid-forties live-alone writer for whom domesticity is both happy choice and mega-dose anesthetic. Her losses are many, but so mundane. As the novel proceeds, and her relationship with Mary deepens to confessional, we see tortures behind her ordinary niceness. It is easy to forgive the trespasses of a writer who thinks so hard about female consciousness in all its forms, even its less dramatic ones. The narrator’s blandness becomes part of her charm.
Hallelujah and yes, brothers and sisters, I was moved. Fictional conventions – conflict, tension, complex characterization – are mostly missing from the book. And so its ending, which is subtle and eloquent and inspirational, is that much more surprising. Yes, I was faithless and then saw a holy light (of sorts). I embraced uncertainty, was lost but now am found. Once again. Diane Schoemperlen’s originality has produced a playful game of hide and seek, a leap of faith.