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The Holding

by Merilyn Simonds

In her first novel, Merilyn Simonds offers us fusty historical fiction with a fresh psychological twist and a poetic sensibility. The story alternates between the journey and travails of Margaret MacBayne, a Scottish emigrant who arrives in the Madawaska Hills of Ontario in 1859, and the complicated inner life of Alyson, a contemporary woman who moves to the same patch of land in the early 1990s with her husband, a moody potter named Walker. Both women share the belief that “in real life, important things were held inside. You carried on.” Eventually, in the face of unforeseen tragedies, both also turn to their gardens for physical release and spiritual renewal.

While Margaret’s tale (reconstructed by Alyson through found diary fragments) has its share of moving and unexpected moments, Alyson’s is certainly the more compelling and intimate narrative. She and Walker orbit each other warily, confined partly by their solitary lifestyles, but more so by their cloistered pasts. Alyson’s voice becomes infused with her longing to connect more meaningfully to her partner and articulate her own desires. The strongest bit here – when she finds herself alone and about to give birth prematurely in the midst of an ice storm – showcases Simonds’ languorous prose, so closely linked to rhythms of weather and the body.

In contrast, there are times when Margaret’s references to Scottish heroes, tree lore, Ojibway tales of the forest, and the fragility of the emigrant’s dream seem only quaint. Simonds’ chosen thematic structure has long become a CanLit cliché.

The Holding is undoubtedly well crafted – some of its descriptive passages are breathtaking in their delicacy – but the idea of a “modern” woman finding solace and redemption through the pioneering efforts of her ancestors, in the peace and tumult only the wilderness can offer, feels worn and outdated.