James is a retired teacher who suffers panic attacks. He is despondent and withdrawn. One day during deer hunting season, James “decide[s] on danger” – in the words of his wife, Maslen – walks into the woods, and is shot. We learn of James’s death on the first page of Karen Smythe’s debut novel. Maslen spends the rest of the book analyzing James’s death, their 13-year marriage, and her relationships with previous boyfriends Ted, an aspiring doctor, and Joshua, a handsome model whom everybody but Maslen suspects is gay.
Maslen’s reminiscences circle around the question of what went repeatedly wrong in her romantic entanglements. Why did all her lovers – including James – ultimately ditch her? She looks for flaws in the men and faultlines in the relationships. In the process, This Side of Sad explores two major ideas: that we can never truly know another person, and that each new romantic involvement leaves us fundamentally changed. “The person I was, with James,” says Maslen, “died when he did.” She tries to reconnect alternately with Ted and Joshua, longing more to recapture the person she was with them than the men themselves.
Based in Guelph, Ontario, Smythe is the author of two previous books, the short-story collection Stubborn Bones and the non-fiction work Figuring Grief, an analysis of the depiction of mourning in the fiction of authors such as Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, and Virginia Woolf. The architecture of this new novel is clunky in the early stages, as Maslen’s memories flit from James to Ted to Joshua. All this analyzing of the former lovers happens too soon and too fast, before we have a chance to know Maslen, to develop any appreciation or sympathy for her, or to care about her lost paramours. The narration becomes a blur at times, the three men blending into one confused blob. The going gets easier as the novel unfolds and we are allowed to appreciate Maslen and each of the men as distinct personalities.
Despite these structural problems, Smythe’s prose is powerful. Listen to Maslen expound on her grief at the loss of her husband: “Sometimes the fact of James’s death blasts me full in the face, and I gasp for air as if it happened only yesterday; at other times, a sadness seems to sprinkle down like a shower of sifted flour.”
The narration stays focused on Maslen; Smythe ensures we see the men as Maslen saw them, but never vice versa. Is Maslen at least partially to blame for her failed relationships? Does she carry even some responsibility for James’s death wish? Because of the limited perspective Smythe provides, we are privy to only one side of the story, from a very biased point of view.
One suspects that individual readers will react differently to this novel. Some may see a wronged woman; some may instead see a narcissist who focuses on the frailties of others rather than her own. The author’s choice of narrative perspective ensures that this book is likely to provoke lively debate.