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Tell It Slant

by Beth Follett

Toronto publisher and editor Beth Follett isn’t shy about placing her debut novel, Tell It Slant, in some heady literary company. The title is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem, and within the first few pages the narrator is identified as Nora Flood, also the name of Robin Vote’s spurned lover in Djuna Barnes’ classic 1936 novel Nightwood. There are further allusions to Elizabeth Smart, and probably a few more that went over my head.

Not that a BA in English lit is needed to navigate Follett’s novel. Nora, a lesbian photographer in contemporary Montreal, is suffocating under the weight of a love affair with Robin. Robin drinks too much and has affairs with other women. Her only explanation for her lapses in monogamy is “I Am Like This.” She is an obvious match for the controlling, intensely self-conscious Nora. The two lovers fight a lot, and Nora threatens to run away. They come together.

The joy of the novel lies in its telling. Follett adopts a literary strategy that takes its cues from Barnes’ layered, poetic prose and Dickinson’s advice that “truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.” The reader is dropped into Nora’s interiorized world with little clue as to how she ended up with a hellcat like Robin, before Follett slowly unwinds her story with short, suggestive vignettes. The characters in Tell It Slant, unlike those in too many “poetic novels,” are carefully drawn and individuated. When the novel threatens to wither under the central love affair’s inertia, Follett wisely shifts perspective to Nora’s childhood and coming-of-age memories or a second-person narrative that positions the reader as Robin’s anxiety-ridden lover.

Less successful is the occasional appearance of Djuna Barnes as a ghost-like character commenting on Nora’s journey to self-realization. The scenes with Barnes are interesting enough in themselves, but this postmodern tactic of introducing a historical figure into a fictional world feels tacked on from another novel.