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Three Views of Crystal Water

by Katherine Govier

Katherine Govier’s new novel is a sprawling, richly researched historical novel, a chronicle of love and obsession in the 19th-century tradition of the grand pursuit. As the backdrop to this luminous, multilayered tale, the sea is a constant, shifting presence. So is the sense of looming loss and destruction; the natural world in all its glorious abundance is no match for the profligacy of humankind.

This sounds very much like a description of Govier’s last novel, Creation, which took a fictional look at wildlife painter John James Audubon. The resemblances reveal much about the author’s own preoccupations. Yet the two works stake their claims on strikingly different narrative ground. Three Views of Crystal Water takes place far from the fog-bound bays of Labrador, on an unnamed island off the coast of Japan. This time out, Govier’s protagonist is not a middle-aged ornithological painter but a fair-haired girl barely in her teens. The objects of obsessive pursuit are not birds but pearls.

The leap from Audubon’s East Coast darkness to the culture of pearls and the Far East reflect Govier’s remarkable range. She has moved in her fiction from the western frontier to Canadian cityscapes and Europe. Her ninth novel begins in Vancouver in the mid-1930s, cutting back and forth in time and space between Panama, Japan, and the Middle East. Govier interweaves young Vera Drew’s story with that of her grandfather, James Lowinger, the most sympathetic of a feckless lot of pearl-mad adventurers.

Returning to Canada in the deepening Depression, Lowinger brings back few spoils – only Keiko, his last pearl of the Orient. Though Keiko is young, she has an exotic past: she is an ama, a woman pearl diver. When Lowinger dies, she goes back to Japan, taking his granddaughter with her. At first Vera is desperately lonely in an alien culture she knows only through her grandfather’s tales and woodcuts. But on the island where Keiko’s family spends the summers harvesting the sea, Vera is slowly drawn into another life. She also begins to train as an ama.

Vera is a much more appealing character than Creation’s brooding artist, but like Audubon, her origins are unusual and complex. Their gradual revelation is one of the hooks on which Govier hangs her narrative. The Lowinger fortunes wax and wane through their single-minded enterprises. Like Audubon’s birds, pearls turn out to be a fragile resource in the face of human excess. The stinking heaps of shellfish, ripped open and left to rot, are a dark counterpart to the luminous string of pearls around a slender neck.

Govier lingers lovingly over the details of Japanese woodblock prints (“full of reportage but also suffused with fantasy,” Vera says, “exactly the combination that I love”). Here the pacing may at times test a reader’s patience. Govier works in a lode of pearl lore and legend, bizarre accounts of treachery and cruelty. And just as she romances the pearl, she mythologizes the ama who dive like sea nymphs bare-breasted into the depths of the sea. At the same time she depicts the women as poor and uneducated, labouring under difficult, dangerous conditions for a meagre subsistence. In fact, the ama are little different from coal miners – only they are near-naked and graceful, and their element has much greater charm than the earth’s sooty bowels.

To Govier’s credit, nothing here is black and white, cut and dried. Truth shifts. Even Vera’s name – “truth” – started out as Verity, the name of her mother’s favourite movie theatre, house of illusion. Is Vera’s prodigal father a bounder or a romantic? Is love really just opportunism and need? As Vera learns from the triptych of woodcuts that give the novel its title, rearranging the order can make the details take on very different meanings.

Govier creates vivid foils for Vera in Lowinger and Keiko. On the island another character, Ikkanshi the katanatogi – sword-polisher – takes up Vera’s education in the ways of self-discipline and pride. Through Ikkanshi, Govier explores yet another dimension: a male principle struggling to find a way to live. The sword polisher is a study in contradictions, rigidly controlled and monkish, yet a lover of women. His self-exile from a military career is overtaken by “current events”– war will twist the honour of his country into something ugly, changing not only the ancient island rhythms but the pace of the world. It will also wrench Vera from the community that has taken her in, and from the arms of her first love.

Events begin to unfold rapidly. Vera’s father takes her away to Canada. A bomb dropped on Hiroshima brings an end to the war. Several decades pass before Vera returns to Japan, and though Govier does not tie up the strands too neatly, the ending is deeply satisfying. This is the work of a mature writer approaching the top of her powers. Govier has gone out far and deep and returned with a gleaming pearl.