In Maria Meindl’s debut novel, set in 1980s Toronto, a stage manager falls for the enigmatic owner of a cutting-edge theatre company. Rebecca Weir joins SenseInSound, whose rehearsals take place in a cold, underground warehouse. Under the command of the troupe’s charismatic leader, Martin Lewis, the members engage in various acts of intimacy such as sleeping next to each other and making feral sounds in response to the elements, all of which Martin refers to as “the Work.” Martin’s cult-like group emphasizes a sense of risk and living in the “now”; Rebecca is soon embroiled in a love triangle with Martin and Amanda M., one of the actors in the troupe.
Many chapters in The Work conclude with online correspondence – emails sent between Amanda and the mysterious Dr. Charbonneau (whom we learn is chair of the drama department at the University of Toronto) form a significant narrative thread. These dispatches offer the backstories for the characters in Martin’s orbit, as well as creating a mood of intrigue, conspiracy, and excitement.
Structurally and thematically, the novel has resonances with Sarah Selecky’s Radiant Shimmering Light, which follows a lifestyle cult whose members’ promotional communications and daily affirmations form a key part of the narrative architecture. The final pages of Meindl’s work bring the narrative threads together in a dry, recuperative sequence that will make arts workers, writers, and scholars nod in recognition.
Because Meindl’s third-person narrator follows Rebecca so closely, while holding the other characters at a greater psychic distance, Martin’s charisma is not entirely convincing. The narrative focus is understandable because the novel is ultimately about the experiences of women and this comes through strongly in Meindl’s chosen framing.
The Work is a finely sketched portrait of a specific milieu in 1980s Toronto. It finds echoes beyond its time frame in the current contexts of #MeToo, workplace politics, and the fragmentation of patriarchal culture. Meindl shows the way in which patriarchy gave rise to people like Martin, whose entitlement and abuse may never have come to light were it not for the courage of people speaking up about experiences like those dramatized in this novel.