After earning a 1991 Governor General’s Literary Award nomination for her debut, the short-fiction collection Quickening, Terry Griggs has continued to garner critical praise. Known for her whirlwind storytelling and lush vocabulary, Griggs won the 2002 Marian Engel Award, given (at the time) to a female author in mid-career. The Discovery of Honey, Griggs’s first work of adult fiction since 2009, has been dubbed “a suite of short stories,” but reads more like a postmodern picaresque.
Told in the protagonist’s snappy, pixieish voice, the book comprises a series of misadventures in the life of Hero, a girl in a northern Ontario town. Like the eponymous character in Laurence Stern’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Hero possesses the hyper-omniscient ability to recount events that occurred prior to her own birth. In the title story, which opens the collection, Hero narrates the story of her parents’ wedding day, during which a “lusty and vigorous gale” sends the ceremony into disarray and almost literally blows her errant mother into an adulterous sexual union, resulting in Hero’s conception.
This chaotic origin story sets the tone for Hero’s upbringing, which is marked by neglect on the part of the adults who are put in charge of her. “At home, Mother called me The Baby. As in, The Dog, The TV, The Toaster,” our narrator informs us. Born within minutes of her grandmother’s death, Hero is frequently left in the hands of aunts while her mother engages in a series of extramarital affairs. It is not a surprise when Hero develops an unhealthy crush on her delinquent cousin, Nile, whom even she admits is bad news: “file him under women’s troubles and forget about him,” she tells us – advice she herself ignores.
In “Juno Pluvia,” 15-year-old Hero follows her rakish cousin (10 years her senior) to a boathouse dance, intending to seduce him with her newly acquired feminine wiles. Nile takes a brief pause from his womanizing to save his cousin from a lustful predator – “[He] applied his palm to the side of the guy’s head and shoved. Crick went the interloper’s neck” – then promptly abandons her for another conquest, leaving Hero heartbroken.
Romance between cousins is not an uncommon theme in literature, but one can’t help but wonder about a book that pokes lighthearted fun at subjects such as child neglect, incest, and sexual harassment. If the object is merely entertainment or escapism, Griggs’s approach is oddly misguided. If the message is that Hero grows into a whip-smart and self-assured young woman despite a difficult upbringing, that message is lost among a barrage of cartoonish and scatological gags.
In the end, The Discovery of Honey is a polarizing book. Readers familiar with Griggs’s narrative style and wordplay will appreciate Hero’s verbal acrobatics, but others may feel bogged down by the muddled nature of Hero’s “ongoing family sitcom,” which is related with “irritatingly precocious wit.”