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The Garden of Eden

by Sharon Butala

Saskatchewan writer Sharon Butala, best known for her critically acclaimed work of creative non-fiction, The Perfection of the Morning, returns to fiction with her latest book. The Garden of Eden furthers her exploration of prairie life while offering a comprehensive and heartfelt portrait of contemporary womanhood.

Described by the publisher as a “sweeping tale,” the book certainly merits the term. Butala treats such subjects as world hunger, globalization, the changing way of life on the prairie, and a wide range of issues faced by women, including abortion, self-confidence, the decision to have or not have children, infidelity, menopause, and widowhood. The novel’s heroine, a middle-aged farm woman jarred from complacency by her husband’s sudden death, travels to drought-ravaged Ethiopia to search for her lost niece. Along the way, she discovers many truths about the world and her own nature, about the importance of forming an intimate and meaningful relationship with the land.

The Garden of Eden will most please those with traditional tastes in storytelling. The narrative is linear and the prose is direct, unironic, and highly accessible. Butala wants to take us deep into the hearts of her characters, and deep into the large moral, political, and ecological questions of our age. At times, she succeeds, especially when writing about the everyday routines and conventions of a small prairie town. Her ability to write with sincerity and passion about the prairie and women’s lives gives the novel an unquestioned integrity.

Yet The Garden of Eden has many flaws. Most seriously, the large middle section set in Ethiopia reads more like a travelogue than an essential part of the narrative. As a result, the story loses momentum. Also, Butala’s sincerity often produces purple prose and highly melodramatic scenes, as she labours too obviously to make us experience her main character’s emotional world.

Well-written at times, The Garden of Eden unfortunately becomes a chore to finish. Given Butala’s compassion for her fictive world and the people who inhabit it, it’s a pity that her artistic vision is marred by so many lapses in technique.