As its title suggests, Martha Baillie’s fourth novel consists of a series of “incident reports” written by Miriam Gordon, a 35-year-old employee of the Toronto Public Library. Miriam is a “Public Service Assistant” at Allan Gardens Library, a fictional branch located in a real Toronto neighbourhood notorious for the socio-economic disparity of its residents. Highly sensitive and startlingly observant, Miriam thankfully takes liberties with the stylistic limitations of her reports. Though many describe daily interactions with library patrons, these are interspersed with accounts of her personal life, in particular a burgeoning romance with Janko, an émigré painter turned cabbie, as well as memories of a troubled childhood dominated by an eccentrically bookish and emotionally unstable father.
“Intensified efficiency,” Miriam recalls, was the method by which her mother dealt with her father’s erratic behaviour. It seems that Miriam herself has internalized her mother’s coping mechanism and made it the basis of her vocation. Whether she is assisting children in assembling a seven-foot paper dragon, disposing of semen-soiled books on Middle Eastern politics, or helping a patron identify a certain 16th-century Italian portraitist, her professional interactions are governed strictly by the library’s rules and regulations. When these regulations are challenged – as they frequently are – she resorts to conduct prescribed by the “Manual of Conduct for Encounters with Difficult Patrons.”
Miriam’s reports chronicle her professional interactions with harmless eccentrics, young families, students, and also an alarming number of patrons who are inebriated, abusive, and mentally unstable. The reader can’t help but be endeared to Miriam as her affectless description of the abuses and indignities she endures is paired with her acute sensitivity to the minutiae of daily existence.
The private and the professional realms overlap when Miriam discovers a series of notes penned by a mysterious patron, who believes himself to be a character in a Verdi opera linked to Miriam’s early childhood memories. Unfortunately, this plot device feels contrived and is not as effective as the less overtly mysterious aspects of the narrative. In spite of this minor shortcoming, Baillie’s novel contains real tenderness, rendered in beautiful prose with compelling restraint.