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Requests and Dedications

by Elise Levine

Elise Levine must really hate mothers. Her first novel, Requests and Dedications, contains at my count six maternal figures who could give Medea a run for her money. And it doesn’t matter if you kill them, neglect them, or run away from them, because, as the narrative claims, mothers are “the greatest predictor for what a person is really like” and therefore inescapable. “No other hate compares,” says one of their benighted daughters, a girl who manages by the end of the novel to revise that statement to “I’m still mad at you. But I don’t hate you.” And that’s as much grace as you can count on from Elise Levine.
This is one tough cookie of a writer, with the talent to carry off her bleak vision with few stumbles. Her canvas is the Canadian working-class family, her location the rural fringe of the Torontonian megacity, her theme, that pain outlives, while love can only endure. The family she focuses on are transplanted New Brunswickers, so it’s no surprise that she shares tonalities more with younger Atlantic writers like Lynn Coady or Donna Morrissey than with the hip downtown crowd.
The novel, like Coady’s Saints of Big Harbour, opts for a fragmented narration shared among three characters, which allows the author to reshoot, in Rashomon fashion, the same scene from various viewpoints. Fortunately, Levine has the discipline to save this narrative trick for when it really counts.
Levine’s fictional family is decidedly non-nuclear and dysfunctional. Five people reside in a state of tense domestic warfare in an Ontario red-brick farmhouse with a drafty two-room flat stuck on the back. In the main house live Walker, a 53-year-old horse boarder with an outsized belly and a temper to match, and his mildly retarded 12-year-old daughter Jena, a girl who will remind readers uneasily of the unfortunate Reena Virk who was murdered by bullies in Victoria.
In the lean-to at the back live Walker’s sister, 48-year-old Joy, who works as a cleaning lady at one of the swish Markham golf clubs nearby, and her 17-year-old daughter Tanis, who shows a talent for Walker’s horses but none for her studies. Floating between the two halves of the house is Mimi, a pitiful party girl who spent her youth as “the high priestess of higher love,” in other words a groupie on some rock band’s – any rock band’s – private jet and who stills dresses and acts the part at age 37. She is Joy’s best friend and Walker’s bedmate, an evil stepmother to Jena but a sympathetic mother-surrogate to Tanis.
Levine is at her most impressive when she shows the multiple facets of these personalities. Joy, for example, is seen through her daughter’s eyes as a red-faced shrew with no neck and stenchy breath, but when they all pile down to the Whitby mental hospital to visit Mimi’s mother, it is Joy who befriends a male patient in the waiting room and draws him into a charming card game of her own invention. And when Tanis’s sleek, young lesbian lover from downtown Toronto comes to visit and makes fun of Joy, Tanis’s hatred of her mother is instantly transformed into hostile defensiveness – my family right or wrong.
Walker’s bluster and porcine appearance also mask other qualities: an extraordinary tolerance for Mimi’s princess shenanigans, a steady if cranky support for his sister and her daughter, and, as Tanis describes it, “Walker’s botched voice mantling us all in something like love.”
In a highly charged flashback, we see an 11-year-old Walker scaling the struts of a half-built highrise to impress the sneering classmates who call him “Newfie.” As the day darkens and the boy’s tormentors fade back home for supper, Walker’s mother appears (the only positive mother-note in the book) and her concerned presence stops him from taking a swan-dive off the steel beam he clings to.
Young Tanis is the centre of the book, carrying twice the story-telling burden that Walker or Mimi do. And here Levine runs into problems of voice. Tanis is a savvy, sensitive modern teenager, but Levine can’t seem to resist giving her inappropriate mouthfuls of words to say or think: a photograph is a “dreamy pixillated spill,” a plane “leaches distance from the colourless sky,” a dirty bathroom is in need of her cleaning-lady mother’s “decontaminating protocols,” daytime TV shows are “the unspooling ribbons of satiny little appetites.” These phrases stick out of the narrative like sore thumbs, but a writer this clever and talented will surely learn to control the impulse to include pretty word-pictures just because they sound good.