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The Shape I Gave You

by Martha Baillie

This haunting novel begins with an epigraph from the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz that starts, “We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.” How arresting and intriguing. What would you do in such a situation, with no one to unburden your heart to? The best novels pose such compelling moral questions, and this is a very good novel.

The penitent in this tale is a 51-year-old Toronto sculptor named Beatrice, who has just lost her 18-year-old daughter Ines in a terrible traffic accident. Beatrice is convinced that Ines’s death is punishment for a passionate but secret affair of the heart that she, Beatrice, conducted with a serious young German academic, Gustave, from the time she was a girl of 17 until his premature death from cancer several decades later. Beatrice’s husband, Isaac, who deliberately avoided ever confronting his wife about Gustave, even when she flew off to Berlin for a week to be with her lover, is mourning Ines’s death in his own way, and communication between the bereaved couple has broken down completely.

So Beatrice chooses as her confessor Gustave’s 28-year-old daughter, Ulrike, a Berlin-based pianist who is just preparing to go off to Dusseldorf to give a solo concert when a fat envelope containing an 80-page letter from Canada lands on her doorstep. From that point on, we read Beatrice’s letter over Ulrike’s shoulder, so to speak, pausing for the occasional chapter from Ulrike’s point of view as she tries to digest this lengthy mea culpa from her father’s lover, and fit it into her own life and her relationships with her dead father, her mother and sister, and her boyfriend Max.

In a literary style that occasionally echoes both Anne Michaels and Elizabeth Smart, but is much more tightly disciplined than either, Baillie explores the meaning of her title as it applies to all her characters, but especially to Beatrice and Gustave. Their long-distance love affair consists mostly of letters, with only the occasional face-to-face encounter, so in a very real sense each of them is a product of the other’s imagination.

Beatrice is convinced from the beginning that Gustave can “see inside [her] head,” while Gustave declares that all his best qualities are her inventions, that the man she believes him to be doesn’t exist outside her fantasies. In the meantime, Ulrike, growing up in Gustave’s home, sees a constant stream of letters arriving for him from Toronto and finds herself inventing Beatrice: “not your appearance. I knew what you looked like … but your emotions, your beliefs I invented.”

This attenuated series of connections forces the reader to pay very close attention. The pronoun “I” is a moving target, sometimes signifying Beatrice’s voice, sometimes Ulrike’s. There are parallel mother-daughter relationships taking place on both sides of the Atlantic, and father-daughter struggles as well. The book becomes richer and deeper as it moves toward the one scene of consummation between the lovers, an act tinged with disappointment and intimacy, followed by a bicycle trip to the North Sea where they walk the dike that holds back the “restless, cold water,” a perfect symbol of the passions they dare not fully explore. Beatrice herself had expressed her fear many years earlier: “Not one square inch of solid land will remain. Many will drown.”

The Canadian scenes – at a cottage on Lake Huron, and in the Annex district of Toronto – are full of finely wrought detail, while those in Germany have a more distant and stilted character. One Berlin scene in particular, when Beatrice and Isaac come to visit Gustave and his family, rings surprisingly untrue for such a meticulous writer: Gustave’s wife is portrayed as immaculately dressed in a white silk shirt and sharply pleated white pants, while her 14- and 12-year-old daughters are seen boisterously wrestling on the living-room floor. A highly unlikely juxtaposition, especially with visitors from Canada in the room. This memory shifts uneasily at the end of the book when Ulrike reveals to Beatrice her mother’s own infidelity and muses, “My mother all in white? I don’t think so.” But even misplaced memories demand a certain plausibility.

Does confession prove good for the soul? Although Baillie is far too sober and mature a writer to reach for a standard happy ending, there is a strong sense of release and renewal for Beatrice as she walks her 80-page opus to the Toronto post office: “The sorry, small brown gardens, the cramped brick houses struck me as unaccountably beautiful; each brick, each naked twig a singular, precise wonder.”

Ulrike, something of a control freak like her father, finds that learning so much about her parents’ secret lives has left her “disoriented but freed, less tightly tied to my assessments, briefly excused of my responsibilities.” These are grown-up thoughts and this is a grown-up, rather European-feeling, novel.


Reviewer: Bronwyn Drainie

Publisher: Knopf Canada


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 256 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-676-97748-0

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: 2005-12

Categories: Fiction: Novels