When Fenelon Falls takes place during the summer of 1969, with Woodstock, the moon landing, and “Sugar Sugar” in the background. Palmer is as playful with language as she is with pop-culture references, but it would be a mistake to confuse her novel with literary bubblegum. It’s a serious book, with darkness at its heart.
Fourteen-year-old Jordan May March finds no sanctuary at her family’s summer cottage in the Kawarthas. The physically disabled teenager seems fated to be an outcast: conceived during Toronto’s infamous Hurricane Hazel and later adopted, she’s preyed upon by her horrible cousins and subjected to her mother’s bitter wrath. She finds diversion in her transistor radio, her collection of CHUM Top-40 charts, implausible reveries about who her biological parents might be, and a plot to free the bear kept caged down the road as a tourist attraction.
The novel is written from the perspective of Jordan’s brother, a narrator who makes it clear that his story can’t always be trusted. Interspersed throughout are pages from Jordan’s journal, which imagine various possibilities for the circumstances of her conception. The plot proceeds in a fragmented fashion, with the central narrative subject to constant digressions that add detail and backstory. In addition, Palmer’s prose is rife with allusions, puns, slang, and inside jokes. At times, the result is exhausting and overblown.
Readers who persevere, however, will find the book yields some rewards. The story is full of humour, surprises, and a refreshingly unsentimental depiction of family relations. A bold and challenging undercurrent of darkness drives the plot forward. And Palmer’s narrative poses difficult questions about the nature of story and history, yet doesn’t purport to provide any pat answers.
Palmer is a talented writer with an original voice and a marvellous ear for the nuance (and fun) of language. Though her creative energy could be harnessed somewhat, When Fenelon Falls nevertheless has clear merits.