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Strange Heaven

by Lynn Coady

A couple of chapters into this stellar first novel, Alan, an urban Ontarian with a facetious habit of talking like a CBC newscaster, describes his impressions of the small Cape Breton town he’s landed in: “ ‘This is a wonderful place, a fascinating people with a thriving, unique culture,’” he intones, with mock seriousness. “ ‘And yet there is a sadness. A hopelessness about it all. The dependence on welfare, unemployment insurance. The bottle.’” It’s a wickedly deadpan summary of the earnest yet patronizing view so many mainland Canadians have of Maritime culture. Lynn Coady, who grew up in Cape Breton, is out to bust the stereotype; she writes about her home with irreverence, ambivalence, and a lot of humour.

Bridget Murphy, Strange Heaven’s emotionally bedraggled anti-heroine, spends the first half of the book in the psychiatric ward of a Halifax children’s hospital, recovering from the trauma of giving birth to a baby who was immediately given up for adoption. Depressed and apathetic, she responds to all questions about her welfare with a toneless “I dunno,” but she seems positively healthy next to most of her fellow patients. There’s Kelly, who’s recovering from anorexia, and Maria, who’s dying from it; foul-mouthed, tattooed Mona, who has a habit of running away from her wealthy father, and Byron, an acne-ridden geek with bizarre delusions of grandeur. As described by Coady, life on the ward is both nightmarish and laugh-out-loud funny; it’s like a Janet Frame novel reconceived by Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend.

When Bridget returns to the town her friend Alan finds so poignant, to her noisily dysfunctional family and her gossipy, hard-drinking friends, she’s like a castaway from another planet. Numb and detached, she regards the people she’s known all her life with sudden incomprehension. Seen through her bemused gaze, mundane and uncomfortable events – a rancorous Christmas dinner, a boozy house party, a visit to a family mourning their murdered daughter – become surreal and blackly hilarious. What’s surprising is that even though home is at least as nightmarish as the psych ward, it turns out to be a better place for Bridget’s wounded psyche to heal.

Another darkly comic story about a working-class Catholic Nova Scotian family, Thom Fitzgerald’s The Hanging Garden, was a surprise hit last year on movie screens across Canada. Strange Heaven deserves to meet with similar success. Maybe this is the dawn of a vigorous new movement in Maritime arts and letters. If it means more novels like this, let’s hope so.