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Whispering in Shadows

by Jeannette Armstrong

Best known for the novel Slash and the poetry collection Breath Tracks, Okanagan writer Jeannette Armstrong combines genres in her new novel to bring readers into the world of Penny Jackson, a painter, activist, and mother of three. Whispering in Shadows weaves traditional oral literature, poetry, and prose into longer episodic passages that reveal Penny’s artistic mind and inner turmoil as she journeys from youth to middle age.

Armstrong has some brilliant ideas about the human condition, native life in Canada, and the relationship between the sexes, but she pays little attention to story, so the book is often derailed by her tendency to lecture. Penny is an explain-it-all narrative device rather than a nuanced character: her diary entries, letters, internal narratives, and conversations present questions and answers in neat little packages. Armstrong moves Penny around – to a job, to university, to a logging protest, to a Mayan community in Chiapas – but as soon as readers are drawn into a scene, the author stops the action and resorts to essay-form explication. This speechifying is sometimes insightful, but Whispering in Shadows doesn’t make for engaging fiction because it does not present a world, just ideas in the abstract.

Which doesn’t mean that it’s a complete failure. Despite her tell-all-and-show-nothing style, Armstrong captures the necessary but excruciating aloneness of the artist, and she does a good job of bringing readers into the creative mind (describing how Penny sees light and shadow and form, for example). The author also aptly conveys the relationship between artist and art. But like much literature from aboriginal houses – where editing is equated with oppression – the text is riddled with plurals punctuated as possessives (and vice versa), spelling errors, non-parallelisms, and all manner of annoying errors. This inattention to detail will try the patience of readers, as will the lecturing. Those who read around those flaws will discover a textured and affecting profile of the artistic temperament.